Romanian director offers a stunning look at religion

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

"Beyond the Hills" begins with a woman walking on a train platform, going against the crowd. We might think the scene is a metaphor for the film to come: Perhaps this woman is a rebel who will challenge authority. It turns out, however, that the person she is walking to meet is the rebel, a woman whose very existence seems to challenge the ideas of the monastery in which the first girl lives.

Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has arrived at the station to pick up Alina (Cristina Flutur). The two were inseparable growing up in an orphanage, but Alina sought a better life in Germany, where she's made some money as a barmaid. She's returned to bring Voichita back with her, but Voichita doesn't seem enthusiastic about leaving the poverty of the monastery in Moldova.

But then, we could tell as soon as the pair was reunited that Voichita and Alina might have different feelings for each other. "Stay there!" Voichita tells Alina when she finally spots her at the station. Alina doesn't listen, rushing to her friend, narrowly avoiding being hit by a train. Alina embraces her friend and can't stop crying. "Alina, let me go. People are looking," Voichita insists. That is our first clue that their relationship might be of a sort still disapproved of in places like old-fashioned Eastern Europe.

And, of course, monasteries. This one is run by a priest the nuns and novices -- of which Voichita is one -- call Papa (Valeriu Andriuta). Voichita tells him that she'd like to go to Germany with Alina, temporarily, until her loneliness is cured. The priest won't have it: "You can be surrounded by all the people in the world, but if you don't have God in your soul ..." He's immediately suspicious of Alina, but he doesn't want to see Voichita leave under any circumstances, telling her, "You can't be His servant just from time to time."

On screen
'Beyond the Hills'
» Rating: 4 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta
» Director: Cristian Mungiu
» Rated: Not rated
» Running time: 152 minutes

Voichita is clearly conflicted. But we don't know how, exactly. It might be that she's no longer interested in the romantic relationship she had with Alina. It might be that she truly has found faith and family at the monastery. "I've got someone else in my soul now" is how she explains it to Alina, thus sealing her friend's fate. Because Alina doesn't take the news well, and the monastery doesn't take Alina well. It doesn't help that Easter is approaching, the most important holiday on the Christian calendar, and one focused on death.

"Beyond the Hills" is based on "nonfiction novels" by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, a BBC Bucharest bureau chief who reported in 2005 the details of an exorcism performed at a rural monastery. This isn't a horror movie in the typical sense, though. The horrors are within, not without, in the soul of Alina and the friend and strangers among whom she now finds herself.

Director Cristian Mungiu has practically single-handedly put modern Romanian cinema on the map. His 2007 film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" was a masterful look at an abortion in communist Romania. This film doesn't indict the communists, but it contains the same elements of tragic bureaucratic absurdity: When the troubled and troubling Alina needs medical help, the nuns call an ambulance, but the hospital tells them their rural location is too far away and suggests they pray for the young woman instead.

"Beyond the Hills" won Mungiu the award for best screenplay at Cannes last year, and his two stars -- both novices themselves, though they give deep performances -- a shared award for best actress. That this stunning, serious work didn't get an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film proves once again that the best films in the world often aren't honored by the industry's most famous trade organization in the world.

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