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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.12.12] Romania drama

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu hasn't exactly been slouching since his emergence on the international scene with the outstanding 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days but his follow-up, an entry into the anthology film Tales from the Golden Age didn't satisfy cinephiles looking for another opus. Wait no more.

In Beyond the Hills Mungiu tackles another female story, this time adapted from the non-fiction works of Tatiana Niculescu Bran which caused quite a stir in her native country when they were first published. The film follows two young women who grew up together in an orphanage. Once old enough to venture out on their own Voichita chooses to join a local convent while Alina travels to Germany to set up a new life. After some time apart, Alina returns to Romania and visits her friend but it's immediately clear that she's come to take Alina with her to Germany so that the two can set up a new life together. So begins the downfall of both women though the consequences of their choices are much more dire than either of them could have foreseen.

The idea of Mungiu's story is fascinating, bringing up all sorts of issues from the mistreatment of children in state run orphanages to misguided youthful romances but at the core of the story are two women divided by faith and love. Voichita has given herself fully to the church while Alina is lonely and willing to do anything to rekindle the romantic relationship that Mungiu quietly infuses into the story. It's never directly stated but many an action suggests that the two were romantically involved. This is first hinted at shortly after Alina's arrival as she asks Voichita to rub her down in a scene that plays out in a wash of sexual tension though nothing uncouth takes place.

As the story progresses and Alina finds herself ever closer to her return to Germany, it becomes clear that Voichita isn't interested in leaving. Desperate and lonely, Alina, after numerous conversations with other members of the convent and a tension filled outburst at the family with whom she lived before her move to Germany, makes a rash decision to stay at which point the real ordeal begins: the test of Alina's faith, that of the religious group she belongs to and Voichita's will.

Beyond the Hills is beautiful and stark and features more than a handful of brilliant scenes, though none more stunning than Alina's explanation of what happened to her friend just before the movie's closing moments. The problem comes in the middle, after Alina's arrival as the two women toss the idea of leaving back and forth, an idea that is later replaced by Voichita's questions about the faith. The faith question is heavy handed and constantly hammered home in scene after unnecessary scene. Mungiu is clearly, much too clearly considering the director's tendency for the understated, questioning religion and it unnecessarily drags the movie down to a near crawl. Beyond the Hills does eventually find its path and the final act plays out like a masterfully produced horror movie where everyone, including Alina, has drunk the Kool Aid.

With great performances from Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur as the two best friends as well as an excellent supporting cast, Beyond the Hills manages to emerge from it's bloated second act to deliver a spectacular finale. It's a bit of a slog but those who stick with it are rewarded with a finale that nearly makes up for the movie's previous missteps. It could use a little editing but as a whole, Beyond the Hills is a solid follow-up.

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