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Romanian director Cristian Mungiu broke onto the world stage with the searing abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Now comes Beyond the Hills , an equally stark film in which the director explores another — though entirely different — situation, but one that’s also destined to provoke heartbreak.

Set in a Orthodox monastery that’s inhabited by a priest and a small group of nuns and novices, Beyond the Hills focuses on a relationship forged by two women in an orphanage that offered them something considerably less than an idyllic childhood.

Alina wants a reunion
Alina wants a reunion

The movie begins when Alina (Christna Flutur) returns to Romania after trying her hand at employment in Germany. Alina desperately wants to reunite with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), the girl with whom she grew up at the orphanage.

Mungiu purposefully refuses to define the precise parameters of the relationship between Alina and Voichita, who now lives in the monastery. It may have been sexual or, at minimum, full of sexual undertones. One thing becomes clear, though: Alina desperately wants to renew the relationship. She can’t seem to imagine how she can continue if Voichita won’t return to Germany with her.

Unfortunately for Alina, Voichita has found fulfillment in religious life, not to mention a sense of family that she never experienced as a child. The nuns refer to the priest and head nun as “papa” and “mama.” A spartan but clearly familial environment prevails at the isolated and very meager monastery where the nuns live.

In less capable hands, Beyond the Hills easily could have pitted Alina’s secular outlook against the more rigid dictates of religion. But Mingiu, whose movie was inspired by a real story, provides so much shading that it becomes impossible for an audience to indulge in simplistic moralizing.

The priest and nuns don’t always understand Alina, but they genuinely seem to care about her. They mistakenly diagnose her condition as demonic possession, a judgment that’s enforced when a hospital returns Alina — who’s prone to violent outbursts — to the care of the nuns.

As Alina’s behavior becomes more threatening (to herself as well as to others), the nuns implore the monastery’s priest (Valeriu Andriuta) to perform an exorcism. He ultimately agrees, and Alina is put through an experience that looks very much like torture — although neither the priest nor the nuns see it that way.

When they say they’re trying to help, they mean it. Besides, they have no idea what else they can do.

For her part, Voichita is deeply conflicted. She’s been told that if she were to leave the monastery with Alina, she would not be allowed to return. She obviously has deep feelings for her long-time friend — a girl who served has her protector in the orphanage — but she can’t easily abandon a group that has provided her with the only security she’s ever known.

These young women have hopelessly conflicting ideas about what’s required to make each of them feel safe.

It’s difficult (and perhaps unwise) to see Beyond the Hills as anything but a sobering indictment of much of Romanian society. Mungiu hints at the awful upbringing the girls received at the orphanage, reveals the less-than-noble motivations of the people who, at one point, took Alina into foster care, and offers a clear depiction of obvious failures at a local hospital.

All of this takes place against a forbidding backdrop. The environment at the monastery goes way beyond what many of us would recognize as religiously inspired poverty. Unadorned in summer and snowbound during the winter months, the monastery has no electricity and little by way of creature comforts.

The nuns sometimes interact with townsfolk, although it’s clear that their isolation, as well as their reliance on a single priest for religious instruction, has badly skewed their judgment.

As the story develops, we meet people who behave sanely, although everyone seems to be laboring under the heavy weight of knowledge that few things in life ever work out well; even the most stable of the movie’s characters seem to have grown accustomed to greeting disaster with a knowing shrug.

Both actresses are fine, but Flutur makes an exceptional Alina, and Beyond the Hills reinforces Mungiu’s status as an important filmmaker on the world stage. I doubt whether you’ll see anything quite like Beyond the Hills any time soon.