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Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's last movie, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," was about a pair of women struggling to live under the insane policies of Cold War-era strongman Nicolae Ceausescu. It's an austere, chilly, impossibly tense masterpiece, though from personal experience, a terrible date movie. Mungiu's follow-up movie -- "Beyond the Hills" -- doesn't evoke that nation's Communist past but its marginally less dysfunctional present; the story is based on a real-life event that took place in 2005.
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Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is a young nun living in a hardscrabble Orthodox convent in an isolated corner of Romania. The nuns live without electricity or running water in simple wooden houses that wouldn't look out of place a century ago. In spite of the lack of anything close to modern conveniences, Voichita has found a home among her black-clad sisters. Her peace, along with everyone else's, is shattered when Alina (Cristina Flutur) pays her a visit after a two-year stint in Germany.
The two grew up together in an orphanage, and there's more than a hint that their relationship was closer than just BFFs. During her first night in the convent, Alina strips to the waist and asks for a rubdown. Voichita demurs and immediately starts praying, as if because of a guilty conscience. As seen in "4 Months," Mungiu is particularly good at capturing the nuances of female friendship. A shy, accommodating young woman, Voichita struggles to do right by her friend and still operate within the strictures of convent life. Alina, in turn, is baffled by her friend's spiritual calling and more than a little frustrated when Voichita doesn't return her affection with the same enthusiasm or intensity. Mungiu, to his credit, never judges either character.
When Voichita ultimately rebuffs her friend's plan to return to Germany together to work on a boat, Alina becomes mentally unhinged. She starts to disrupt the machinations of the convent and, worse, challenge the authority of its patriarch. Though at first she's hospitalized, she's soon dumped back in the care of her friend. Maybe a little spirituality will do her some good, the head of the hospital muses. It doesn't. As she grows more and more violent, irrational, and needy -- at one point, she chucks the convent's most prized icon to the ground -- the priest and nuns come to believe that she's been possessed by the devil. There are no screeched obscenities or green-pea puke to be found in this movie, but the exorcism that follows is still pretty horrific.
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Mungiu lets "Beyond the Hills" unfold at its own pace, evolving from being a chamber drama about friends on divergent paths into a pointed, ironic swipe at authority. As the convent's inflexible, narrow-minded priest struggles to cure Alina of what ails her, he ends up making things much, much worse -- echoing every bungled bureaucratic attempt at doing good. Mungiu makes his point without ever overshadowing his characters, a tricky feat to pull off. At 150 minutes, "Beyond the Hills" might lack the relentless urgency of "4 Months," but it is still a fascinating, subtle, and at times harrowing tale about a remote corner of the world.
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See the trailer for 'Beyond the Hills':