Sunday, May 5, 2013

Beyond the Hills (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Beyond the Hills

A new film based on the Orthodox-themed nonfiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran and directed by the acclaimed Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)  confronts the issues of mental illness, the attachments of love and yes, the ritual of exorcism in the church. Two girls, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) are best friends in a Romanian orphanage. As fate has it, they separate, only to cross paths again. As the film's start, Alina is moved to tears upon meeting Voichita at her new calling, a convent nun. It is evident right away that Alina is an emotional  and turbulent young woman. Indeed , she embraces Voichita in a death-grip hello greeting.

While a willing visiting resident at first, Alina begins to get possessive of her soulmate and we suspect that Alina is in love with Voichita, though not explicitly stated in sexual terms. There is a tense massage scene, but when Alina's breasts spill like apples, Voichita counters with chaste and stern  eyes, with all the razor-sharpness of a Vermeer under a dark habit.

Alina starts to challenge her friend, coercing Voichita to leave the monastery and asking with blunt frankness if Voichita is having sex with the stentorian priest (Valeriu Andriuta).

Voichita is appalled by the suggestion, but decides to shrug it off. Alina again pressures her to join her in Germany for a short stay. Voichita tentatively agrees.

With the passing of a few days, Voichita gets cold feet and rejects the plan. Her path is with God, the monastery and the priest, known by her as "Papa". Initially all seems rosy, but during a Mass, Alina violently interrupts the service and goes into a rage. She curses and endures  convulsions and it is thought by the sisters that she has epilepsy. The doctor does what he can  and gives medicine. Although it is unclear, Alina hears voices and the general consensus is that Alina, at least is experiencing some form of schizophrenia. The sisters push the hospital to allow Alina to stay for a prolonged stay, but there are no beds available. The priest also asserts that he  has no room in the monastery.

A Kafkaesque condition plays out where Alina is perceived as the one not welcome.

One day, a resident nun runs for her life in fright as black crosses are seen burned within the tree trunks and the hens become sterile.

Despite its subject, "Beyond the Hills" is no horror film. Alina's condition seems increasingly to be that of a spurned lover and the priest himself resists supernatural explanations. Throughout the film there is the philosophic question that both the priest and the medical establishment are concerned with healing the sick: one is of the body of science, the other the spirit of Faith. Whether you want medicine or faith to be your medicine, depends on you. This film is dispassionately shaded and holds no agenda.

Yet though "Beyond the Hills" has sparsely little horror film shape, one quick shot in particular almost gave me a jolt of inexorable fright: Voichita peers through the window at Alina's chained body. Her face is pale, tinged gray and bloated and her breath is visible through her mouth and nose which rises like accursed steam.  And though I tried my damned best not to, I did think of "The Exorcist" and how much it holds me immobile with an ataxic and personal fear, seemingly relevant only to me. I averted my eyes and waited. The moment passed.

"Beyond the Hills" has a beautiful painterly quality with some forbidding black-habited nuns going forth as deliberate cawing crows on fields of blinding white snow, while its distant and matter-of- fact tone recalls the deftly expert film on Bruegel, Majewski's "The Mill and the Cross"

The end, featuring an atheist female doctor is the final piece de resistance of the film, as is the addition of an avalanche of mud sweeping  across a police caravan as the priest duly waits within. Miles away, a respected monastery may be fraught with supernal blights and celestial struggles, but on the secular highway of cause and effect, life wheels on in neutral.

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