Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" won the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. It was his second feature; his first, "Occidental" (2002), had also played at Cannes. I assume, therefore, that there is some kind of punch-card system involved in Mungiu's latest getting a spot.
Surely "Beyond the Hills" was not selected for the 2012 Cannes lineup based solely on its merits, unless being an interminable one-note punishment is now considered a virtue.
Everything that the few critics who disliked "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" said about it -- that it was boring, lugubrious, had only one point to make and took forever to make it -- is true of "Beyond the Hills," but more so. Instead of 113 minutes it is 150. Instead of spotlighting the bleakness of 1980s Bucharest it indicts the backwardness of the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church. Instead of moving slowly but deliberately it moves slowly but repetitively. Instead of being good it is bad.
Our setting is a humble monastery in rural Romania. Here dwells Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a 25-year-old nun in training who grew up in an orphanage and has found peace here with the dozen or so sisters and the kindly Father Nusu (Doru Ana). Voichita's best friend, Alina (Cristina Flutur), with whom she spent all of her childhood, comes to visit the monastery, uncertain of what to do with her own life. Would she like to give away all her possessions and become a nun? Maybe. Whatever she does, she wants to be with Voichita.
Voichita and Alina have taken divergent paths and changed their views of the world. "People come and go," Voichita says. "Only God is always with you." She never would have said that before, and it runs contrary to Alina's Voichita-centric philosophy. We come to understand that Alina and Voichita's friendship used to be quite intimate, if you know what I mean, and while Alina wishes to continue that closeness within the walls of monastery, Voichita is uncomfortable with the idea.
Just as Alina is about to end her visit and return to society, she suffers a seizure or fit of some kind. After a brief hospitalization, her stay at the monastery is extended. What follows is an excruciatingly dull cycle that is repeated endlessly: the priests and nuns fear Alina has the devil in her and try to treat her; she prepares to leave the monastery but changes her mind and decides to be a nun; they worry about the devil thing again; Alina packs her bags but opts to stay; devil -- nun -- go -- stay -- etc.
Childhood friends who grow apart. Romantic love that goes only one direction. Finding God and forsaking previous habits. The difference between demonic possession and mental illness. These are some of the interesting concepts that bubble beneath the surface of "Beyond the Hills" but that Mungiu has no interest in exploring. His objective is to excoriate the Orthodox Church (or perhaps religion in general) for turning a blind eye to reality and remaining trapped in the Dark Ages -- for being so closed off that they don't realize how foolish they are. That's a fine point to make, but good grief, Mungiu takes every precaution to avoid making it succinctly or effectively. Assisted by passionless central performances and dull dialogue, Mungiu succeeds only in exhausting our patience, not in conveying a message.