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Love and the cloister

15 March 2013

By Stephen Brown

Story of a friendship: Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur in Beyond the Hills

Story of a friendship: Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur in Beyond the Hills

BEYOND THE HILLS (Cert. 12A) comes from the same Romanian film director, Cristian Mungiu, as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, that harrowing exploration of abortion amid Ceausescu-era absurdities. This time, we witness, in a series of long takes totalling 2½ hours, the consequences of different paths taken by two young women.

The period is round about the start of the new millennium. Two girls who grew up together in an orphanage have pledged lifelong friendship, even though one, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), has joined an Orthodox monastery, and the other, Alina (Cristina Flutur), has taken up what she euphemistically describes as "waitressing" in Germany.

The former displays a serious commitment to her vow of obedience, following the strict directions of Papa (Valeriu Andruita), the priest heading the religious community. The latter is a more capricious character, with signs of emotional instability. When Alina is given permission to stay at the monastery, the fur soon starts to fly. She finds her friend's spiritual devotion well nigh incomprehensible, asserting that their lifelong friendship has a higher claim on Voichita.

The community weighs in, suggesting that Alina will never find peace unless there is evidence of repentance and a new life, something she violently resists. While Mungiu strives to be even-handed - hence the protracted scenes without the addition of mood music or editing - one gets the feeling that the austerity of Orthodox monasticism comes a poor second to the individualism, liberty, and choices of Western society which Alina personifies.

If we remain, as I always do, for the closing credits, we learn that the story is based on a real-life case, where someone like Alina suf- fered a shocking fate inside a Romanian monastery. In the time-honoured tradition of religious institutions, its authorities tried to hush it up.

None of this plays well in a film where human love is depicted as being regarded by ecclesiastical personnel as inferior and subservient to alternative divine imperatives. The suggestion is that repressed sexuality is disguised as Christian virtue, against which the love (platonic or otherwise - we are never sure) that the two girls have for each other cannot but fail.

This is not to leave the impression that we are watching a simplistic polemic by Mungiu against religion. At its best, which is most of the time, Beyond the Hills serves as an examination of two different ways of perceiving reality, each of which could learn a great deal from the other.

On release from today.

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