Cristian Mungiu 150 mins, 12A

Jonathan Romney on Beyond the Hills: A nuns' story, but no sound of music

4.00

A stark, disturbing tale set in a Romanian convent proves surprisingly rewarding

When the then-unknown Cristian Mungiu made his surprise conquest of Cannes in 2007, with Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, we critics had a job touting his film as the hottest ticket in town. Referring to it in shorthand as "the Romanian abortion film" didn't help.

I can't see things being easier with Mungiu's Beyond the Hills. All credit to its distributors for not trying the hard sell and marketing it as "the Romanian Lesbian Nun Exorcism Movie" – though technically, that wouldn't be untrue.

Stark as it was, 4 Months ..., set in the blighted Ceausescu era, told a compelling, emotionally involving story of two women's comradeship and determination. Beyond the Hills is similarly rewarding, although its spare, nuanced narrative doesn't offer its rewards on a plate.

The film is based on real events in Romania in 2005. It begins with the reunion of two young women, Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). The two were room-mates – and, it's implied, lovers – at an orphanage, where the older, tougher Alina protected Voichita against various abuses. Recently living in Germany, Alina has come home to fetch her friend, hoping that she'll join her in working abroad. But Voichita is now a novice in an Orthodox convent run by a priest whom she calls "Papa" (Valeriu Andriuta).

Visiting the austere hillside community, Alina is made welcome by the nuns; but before long, relations are fraught. After rebelling against Papa's rule, Alina is delivered by the nuns to a local hospital, bound and gagged. But soon she's back at the convent and apparently bowing to its severe Orthodoxy. In one of a handful of openly comic moments, Alina – having agreed to make a confession – is talked through a checklist of 464 possible sins. Mercifully, Mungiu only takes us up to No 21.

It's not long before Alina is rebelling again – and it's an act of literal iconoclasm that seals her fate in Mungiu's disturbing final chapter.

Mungiu's script is ruthlessly to the point, while accommodating several pertinent digressions. The drama steps away from the convent to visit, in turn, a police station, where bored officers gossip about local notables; the home of Alina's baffled former foster parents; and the local orphanage, whose inmates seem desperate to escape by any means necessary. It's suggested that for many young women in rural Romania, the options are so limited that joining orders such as Papa's is the only feasible way to find a roof and companionship.

Like 4 Months..., Beyond the Hills offers more in terms of narrative and emotional weight than conventional visual pleasure – though if you're partial to chilly realist starkness, you'll be in clover. Oleg Mutu's widescreen photography drapes the frame with blasted, snowy hillscapes, or frieze-like compositions of the sallow-faced nuns in their weird little pillbox hats.

But the psychological depth is considerable. Relatively little is said between the female leads, yet their faces speak eloquently – Alina with the self-preserving silence of a hard-boiled survivor, and Voichita, wide-eyed and hunched in a cocoon-like coat, hinting at a bottomless fear of the world. Both Flutur and Stratan are strikingly expressive – and, given the rigour of the roles, fearless – and fully deserve their shared Best Actress prize in Cannes.

The film doesn't hit the expected notes in presenting its picture of ignorance and intolerance. Papa, whom you might expect to be the embodiment of patriarchal brutality, is given a surprising soft edge. His world view is built on a rhetoric of mystification and absolutism – yet he's gently spoken, and seemingly compassionate even when casting judgment.

But it's only towards the end that sanity is heard, too late – from a doctor who reads the nuns the riot act, and from a weary policeman who sighs, in the enigmatic closing shot, "What a state the world is in …."

From the very first image, as Voichita squeezes through a railway station crowd, Beyond The Hills is deeply claustrophobic, and you'll want to take a deep breath when it's over. But you'll have been somewhere you could never have imagined otherwise – not just to an obscure corner of religious Europe, but to murky, painful regions of the human soul.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home