The extraordinary abortion-themed drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" placed Cristian Mungiu in the forefront of international cinema, and the Romanian director's new film, "Beyond the Hills," likewise concerns the bond between two young women. Again they face ineffectual institutions, but there's another, more urgent push-pull at the heart of this haunting, beautifully acted feature.
After several years apart, lifelong friends Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) reunite at a train station. "Stay there!" are Voichita's words of greeting across the crowded platform, and then she does her best not to squirm while waiting to be released from Alina's tearful, clingy embrace.
Alina is returning to Romania after several years in Germany, and she's determined to take Voichita from the Orthodox monastery where she's a novice. Voichita's faith is not just beyond Alina's comprehension but, more to the point, she considers it a personal betrayal. Mungiu doesn't spell out the particulars, but he strongly suggests a physical component to the friendship, its importance perhaps exaggerated in Alina's memory.
The screenplay also alludes to sex trafficking in the orphanage where the two grew up together. There's no question that their young lives have been marked by emotional deprivation, if not damage, and it's clear why Voichita doesn't jump at her friend's plan for them to work together on a German cruise ship.
Though the rustic buildings of the deceptively named New Hill Monastery have no electricity or running water and sit on a remote, hardscrabble patch of land, the place has brought Voichita profound comfort. The priest she calls Papa (Valeriu Andriuta) and the mother superior, Mama (Dana Tapalaga), have given her the sense of family she may have known briefly as a toddler, if at all.
What the needy and troubled Alina brings from outside isn't healthy doubt but emotional blackmail. Voichita resists her entreaties by explaining, with preternatural calm, "I've got someone else in my soul now."
But Alina's sexual jealousy — of everyone in her friend's life, including God — turns into deepening agitation, suicidal threats and convulsive fits. Papa, Mama and the young nuns hope that she's a sinner who can be healed by confession, but they fear that she's possessed.
Inspired by the case of an ill-fated exorcism that received a great deal of media attention, Mungiu's quietly gripping film challenges expectations, refusing to merely lay forth an argument against benighted religion or to make Alina a simple victim. However heartbreaking her story, she's an unsympathetic character from the get-go.
And though Voichita's fellow novitiates are given to increasing hysteria over their unmanageable guest, New Hill is only the last in a string of institutions that fail her. By the time an outsider asks "Is someone to blame?" the question is almost absurd in its specificity.
With its long takes and deliberate pacing, "Beyond the Hills" is demanding but always engrossing, even during its repetitive middle section. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu, a regular Mungiu collaborator, has a genius for framing cramped group tableaux in dynamic compositions. He finds the exquisite austerity of the wintry setting and the sense of emergency as the monastery residents prepare for Easter, certain that the "enemy" is among them.
'Beyond the Hills'
No MPAA rating; in Romanian with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles