Most films are satisfied -- to say nothing of overburdened -- addressing the complexities of sexual confusion, or religious conflict, or obsession, or the psychological wreckage left by childhood trauma. But Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" moves so effortlessly through the gnarly intersection of love, loss, God and godlessness that you barely notice how much he's doing, and with such effortless grace.
"Do exorcisms ever go well?" a colleague has wondered, and the best answer is no, not to our recollection, not in the movies and certainly not in Mungiu's narrative, which is based on a true story out of a Moldavian monastery, about a 2005 ritual gone haywire. (Author Tatiana Niculescu Bran has based two fact-based novels on the case.)
In Mungiu's version, Alina (Cristina Flutur), who has been living in Germany, returns to Romania to fetch her best -- and only -- friend, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), with whom she grew up in an orphanage. But Voichita is happy, living the life of a novice at New Hill, an Orthodox convent, amid a family of nuns and a priest called Papa.
Are/were Alina and Voichita lovers? It seems perhaps so, especially when Voichita argues that earthly affection can't stand up to divine love -- or divine intervention, apparently: When she challenges Voichita's priest (Valeriu Andriuta), Alina is suspected of being possessed. And matters take a turn for the worse.
Mungiu's fiercest competition will be himself -- is his gloriously composed, emotionally devastating "Beyond the Hills" the equal of the acclaimed "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days," the 2008 masterpiece that only critics seem to have seen, but which established Mungiu as one of the most intelligent directors now working? It's a tough call. Rent one, see the other in the theater. But don't do it on the same night: Moviegoers are only human, after all, and are advised to take their emotional devastation in moderate doses.
PLOT Lifelong friends, reunited at a Romanian convent, become divided over friendship and religion, obsession and devotion.
CAST Cristina Flutur, Cosmina Stratan, Valeriu Andriuta
BOTTOM LINE Austere, beautiful and long, but also one of the best films of the year (In Romanian with English subtitles)