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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Lift Up Mine Eyes
by Donald Levit

Romanian New Wave has recently come to international cinema consciousness. Its exposure here has in some measure come via the New York Film Festival, from black-humored The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in 2005 to the somber also Cannes and Toronto 2012 Beyond the Hills/După dealuri.

Director-writer-producer Cristian Mungiu has based the latter’s Cannes award-winning screenplay more on Deadly Confession, the first of two Capote-esque non-fiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran. That compatriot BBC journalist wrote about a fatal 2005 exorcism at a rural Orthodox convent back home and the consequent investigation and trial. The two-and-a-half-hour film stops short of the judicial process of the second volume and, though minimalist-realistic, avoids the brutality of The Devils and certainly the shallow showiness of The Exorcist and its spawn and the mall-movie mentality of hilariously titled The Last Exorcism: Part II. Interest is not in guilt per se but in grey areas of motivation, free will, love profane and scared, faith and belief, grief and good and the mistakes made under God’s banner.

Cannes looming, sets standing in for Tanacu were hurriedly built as New Hill Monastery for the arduous winter shoot. A hamlet lies below its rise and, less important than the barren landscape, serves as the source for congregants, ambulances and policemen. Twenty-four-year-old Ringhis Alina (stage actress Cristina Flutur, making a feature début) returns from a few years’ agonizing loneliness working in a bar in Germany. She is now emotionally fragile, every hope pinned on Voichiţa (Cosmina Stratan, another first-timer, sharing Cannes best actress award with costar Flutur), the roommate she had protected at the town orphanage and, the screen refreshingly discreet, maybe her physical lover.

The returnee wants nothing to do with the mother who early abandoned her and slow brother Ionuţ (Ionuţ Ghinea) or with a foster family (Liliana Mocanu, Doru Ana). Viochiţa has meanwhile found family and faith in the community of nuns and novices presided over by Father/”Papa” (Valeriu Andriuţă, Mungiu’s film school friend coaxed from retirement in Ireland) and mother-henned by Mother Superior/”Mama” (Dana Tapalagă). In the austere basic settlement, the woman who stayed has renounced the flesh and the demands of close friendship, fulfillment coming through love of God in submission to the order and its leader.

Abroad, Alina kept her sanity and life assuming that her companion would return there with her, the two of them vaguely working on a boat and picking up where they had left off. A red sports bag contains her meager possessions but is outdone by Viochiţa, who gave away her everything. That red stands out in the severe almost black-and-white color film reminiscent in photography and theme of the work of Dreyer.

Reluctantly allowed to share the nun’s cell for a brief stay, Aline is baffled by the new situation and so obsessed that she falls into a fit and must be restrained, hospitalized and drugged. Discharged by the overcrowded undersupplied medical facility, she returns and soon creates physical, emotional, religious and sexual havoc within the ranks and precinct.

In what looks comic on the page but far from that on the screen, some of the Church’s four hundred sixty-four sins are read aloud and repeated, but the director notes that that of “indifference” is not listed among them. The gaggle of nuns fluttering in black like a demented Greek chorus, Father is begged to perform the dangerous rite of exorcism of the demon supposed to be possessing the frantic woman now gagged and bound to boards.

The first President Roosevelt warned against doing evil on the ground of expediency, but in this nuanced film so many additional cultural, social, individual, physical and psychological influences are overlaid that terms like “innocence” and “guilt” are inadequate. A powerful consideration of what are among man’s basic needs and fears, Beyond the Hills offers a subtle beauty that many viewers might not notice. Some may not appreciate its emotional demands either.

(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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