There’s an exorcism in Beyond the Hills, but you won’t see any girl’s head turn 360 degrees, spew up some green shit, and speak in tongues. No priest will throw himself down a staircase. There are no stoccato violin chords that function as your cue to scream and jump out of your seat (in fact, there’s no score of any kind). The events Beyond the Hills depicts will descend into madness and fevered religiosity, but it will pull you with it, because you won’t be surprised that these circumstances lead these particular characters to take the drastic actions shown. Its final scenes should serve as your wake-up call, pointing out for you what should have been obvious: what happened was, in many ways, ridiculous, and was portentously doomed from the start, when two friends (and old lovers), Alina and Voichita, meet at the train station in the Romanian town nearby where Voichita has recently taken her vows as an Orthodox nun. There are two prominent clashes in Beyond the Hills—one is essentially a break-up, the other a larger-scale commentary on religion against secularism—from which no party or witness emerges unscathed.
Problems bubble to the surface when Alina arrives; she thinks she’s there to rescue Voichita, or at least that it won’t take much to convince her to abscond for Germany, where Alina has been living for a few years after leaving the orphanage where they met. But, like many young lovers, Voichita has found a new purpose. Voichita’s found somebody else, it’s just that she had to whisk herself to a convent to do so—that “someone else” is God. It’s not uncommon, if a bit medieval, for Voichita to describe her calling this way: if nothing else, it’s a reminder that the flawed mandate of physical celibacy has as its underpinnings the concept of a certain spiritual intercourse. One need look no further than Bernini’s sculptures for a concrete (or marble) representation of the ecstasy and euphoria that can apparently be discovered though a relationship with the Christian God.
Here, at the convent beyond the hills, the witnesses—not Alina’s and Voichita’s friends like you’d normally expect, but the strictly religious—compound the problems normally attendant with any break-up. When Alina first arrives at the train station, no one, not even Alina and Voichita, truly know what’s at stake. The priest—creepily but affectionately referred to as “Papa” rather than “Father”—and the nuns see Alina’s distress and perceive her temper as demonic torment. (After watching the film, I have a tough time distinguishing between those of Alina’s actions that are driven by madness and those motivated by jealously and anger.) Unfortunately, the faithful are sure that they have the remedy for Alina (and for Voichita), but that remedy is decidedly unscientific, as you’d imagine. Their idea of helping Alina and Voichita cope is really no help at all. The more help they proffer, the worse the situation gets, and the less possible any resolution becomes.
At the other extreme, Beyond the Hills offers some suggestions about what the state would do instead: in one scene, a doctor refuses to admit Alina to the local hospital, volunteering instead that her stress will disappear, essentially, if the nuns pray the pain away. The doctor’s refusal is emblematic of the state’s response: offer no help at all. Both the state and the church would, if either took its established methods to their logical conclusion, exacerbate the hurt caused by Alina’s realization that she and Voichita will no longer be lovers, even though Voichita will continue to love her unconditionally as a friend. They’d both reach the same result; one out of sincerity, the other out of complete indifference.
The first impression, then, is that the divorce between church and state is wider than whatever separates Alina from Voichita. It sure seems that isolation both physical (the hills separate the convent from the town, and town from convent) and communicative (the nuns have difficulty interacting with any townspeople or professionals aside from one man who drives them around in a red wagon; the townspeople have the same trouble when speaking with the convent’s residents) is a social evil. Neither the religious nor the secular do themselves any favors by shuttering themselves off from the other. At one point, Alina is sure that the priest is lying about storing an icon with supposed healing powers behind the church’s altar—it turns out that, whether or not you believe in spiritual healing, the priest at least had the icon, contrary to Alina’s suspicions. Early on we hear the priest rail against the West’s hedonism (and any non-Orthodox Christians), but as the calling of Alina’s bluff shows, your reaction shouldn’t be to guffaw and preen pretentiously just because of your assuredness in your intellectual superiority. The lesson is that we should guard against getting carried away with our own ideas and suppositions about what is right. The wake-up call I mentioned above, delivered by another doctor at the end, shows just how far down the rabbit hole both the religious and the secular world (the latter through its indifference) have taken you.
That said, any real intercourse between religion and secularism is easier said than done. One can’t just give lip service to it, the way one doctor keeps an small icon next to a postcard of the Mona Lisa in his office, where he informs that he won’t treat Alina, or the way the priest calls for an ambulance even though he prefers his own treatment. Rather, one has to live it, and those who are able to coexist in either society are clearly few and far between. In Beyond the Hills, only Voichita can live this duality: she seems content in her new life, nor is she wedded to any myth about the West, but she definitely derives value from friendship with both real people and supernatural beings.
Because Alina and Voichita will suffer at the hands of either the church or the state, it’s no surprise that the director, Cristian Mungiu, focuses more on results than on process. You don’t see what’s said in confession, you won’t see a suicide attempt later on, but you will see what other people perceive as a result of these events, and hear them shriek and whimper accordingly. This is a narrative technique Mungiu employed in his previous film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which followed two women in Ceausescu’s Romania in search of an abortion doctor (and won the 2007 Palme d’Or—it’s a remarkable film). In 4 Months, you don’t see all of the procedure, but the camera lingers on the fetus and later on the two friends left to contemplate all they’ve had to do and sacrifice (if you’ve seen the movie, you know it’s way more than just a pregnancy).
The end result, therefore, is a certain resignation, summed up by a choice Voichita makes at the end of the movie. It seems she’s the only one capable of the act of choosing; no one else in the movie is able to reconcile religion and secularism. Even for her though, there’s a certain pointlessness in her ability to straddle both worlds (because if you’re the only one who can do it, the benefits are less), and it’s unclear whether she even had a choice to make, but after all the horrors she’d seen to that point, that’s what both her conscience and her heart told her to do.