By Solvej Schou
Updated December 14, 2012 at 01:30 PM EST

Beyond the Hills

  • Movie

As part of an early look at next year’s Oscars, Prize Fighter — in an ongoing series — is highlighting several of the directors and official entries submitted by a whopping 71 countries competing for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

Five years after his 2007 critically acclaimed beautiful and brutal feature about illegal abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, failed to snag an Oscar nomination, prompting controversy, director Cristian Mungiu is back with another stark, hyper-realistic drama: Romania’s official 2013 foreign film Oscar entry Beyond the Hills.

“In a very strange way, 4 Months‘ failure to be nominated in 2007 brought us a lot of notoriety,” Mungiu told EW recently by email. “What we learned from that experience is that the cinema that we do might be very appreciated by the press and festivals, but it won’t necessarily be the kind of cinema appreciated by the voters for the foreign Oscar. This is not ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It is just a fact. Once you understand this, you are going to be more relaxed about the results.”

Beyond the Hills, like 4 Months, touches on dark, depressing, difficult subject matter, telling the story of 25-year-old Alina (Cristina Flutur), who reunites with her childhood friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), now a fledgling nun in a sparse Orthodox convent in Romania. Flutur’s Alina, similar to the women in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is complex and emotional, prone to outbursts and intensity. In other words, she’s human.

She’s also clearly in love with Voichita, who cowers in black robes with the other nuns under the dominating gaze of the convent’s bearded priest (Valeriu Andriuta), referred to as “Papa” and “Father.” When Alina lashes out at the convent’s rigid ways, and the priest, she’s accused of being possessed by “the Evil One” (aka the devil) and subjected to a horrific form of exorcism: tied with chains, gagged, starved, and prayed over. The outcome is incredibly tragic, set against a bleak backdrop of snow and blue-tinged light.

While Beyond the Hills already claimed best screenplay and best actress wins for its leads at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, plus landed best film at Argentina’s recent Mar del Plata International Film Festival, it hasn’t received as much press as other 2013 Oscar official entries including Austria’s Amour, France’s The Intouchables, and Denmark’s A Royal Affair.

“It is difficult to make films that promote the idea of an alternative way of filmmaking to mainstream cinema and at the same time to expect to be awarded an Oscar,” said Mungiu. “I think it is fair to accept the decision of any such competition – and we accepted it – on condition that the film was indeed seen by the voters. The problem I am concerned about is that Romania, as a country, always submits films for the foreign Oscar but never has the right budget or skill to promote it in a professional way.”

Mungiu shot Beyond the Hills for nine weeks during the heart of winter north of Bucharest. The movie feels isolated and cold, from nuns running in the snow, to Alina panting heavily, her breath thick and visible in the air, while strapped to a wooden cross.

Plus, delving into the issue of religion and ideology taken to an extreme level as a means of violence, whether deliberate or not, was obviously challenging for the cast and crew, on top of the rough weather.

“It was cold – sometimes minus 15 degrees Celsius – and once the snow came, it was very beautiful. We welcomed it and we were waiting for it. But, as you can imagine, shooting in winter snow didn’t make our lives easier,” said Mungiu. “Nevertheless, the most difficult thing for us was not to work in extremely difficult conditions but to stage the aggressive and violent scenes with a crew gathering people with very different degrees of religiosity. My way of working with extremely long shots involve a very precise choreography and an extreme precision on all plans. The actors had to accept experiencing some of the suffering of their characters to be able to interpret them so convincingly and they made this sacrifice.”

The movie plays off a true-life incident in 2005 of alleged demonic possession at a monastery in Romania. Considering that was only seven years ago, the reality of exorcism feels shocking. Flutur realistically groans and sweats during the scenes when nuns pray over her. Her crime? Being herself.

On a broader level, filmmakers such as Mungiu are thankfully not afraid to touch on issues of religion, class, history, and difference. The best of foreign film draws out that experience: countries that have wrestled with dictatorships and strife, subject matters that dive deeper than surface entertainment. Romanian culture continues to experience the economic and emotional after-effects of Nicolae Ceausescu’s harsh Communist rule.

“As generally speaking the Orthodoxy is a very calm, gentle and rather tolerant religion. For me, Beyond the Hills speaks at the same time about how a certain extreme way of interpreting any ideology can lead to such incidents. But – even more important than this – the film speaks to me about the side effects of poverty, lack of education, ignorance,” said Mungiu. “The film also speaks about a social indifference that is widespread all around the world today. People are less caring, less implicated, les empathic with their fellows. They are very estranged and selfish. So it is not only for the Church to meditate about the consequences of such events, but also for each of us.”

For Mungiu, an Oscar nomination would also mean more promotion for release in the U.S., a large territory where he hopes to reach more people than five years ago.

Besides, a movie about nuns, exorcism, and ideology may not be typical Oscar fare, but it pushes boundaries, just like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days did in 2007.

“I have seen very few of the other films that were submitted for the foreign Oscars. But, for example, between Amour and The Intouchables, there is a huge difference, from a stylistic and cinematic point of view,” noted Mungiu. “It would be rewarding enough for us to see that the Academy members choose to vote for a more difficult kind of cinema than for just entertainment, no matter from which country this kind of cinema would come from.”

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Beyond the Hills

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