Friday, February 08, 2013

După dealuri (Beyond the Hills)

Not many movies leave me speechless, much less wondering what I really saw; more specifically, with my brain empty. But exactly that's what happened after watching Christian Mungiu's film. It took me weeks to decide to write something about this movie and as soon as started I stopped as nothing made sense. No doubt that my expectations had much to do with my reaction and was not until I forgot about his first movie, that I tried to forget about my expectations and after running many times the movie in my head that some clarity came to me and only then decided to read what it has been written about movie and what the director says about his movie.

My surprise was to find so many different story interpretations, that many extensively talked about the story while much less about the film as a film and remarkable is that most gave movie top scores, meaning they highly enjoyed what they saw... for whatever not-so-clear-for-them reason. Was after this moment that words came to my mind and it was time to write about this movie. Yes I liked movie, I liked what I saw but had not much idea why, until now.

As most that write about film, let's start with the story.

The Story

The story is a fictional interpretation of a real event that happened in 2005 as told by two non-fiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu. The key element is the word fiction as fictionalizing the real story is what allowed Mungiu to create an "evolving" narrative that can be seen in so many ways.

On the surface this is the tale of two orphan girls that after reaching their eighteen birthday had to leave the orphanage and went their separate ways. Alina end up in Germany while Voichiţa stayed in Romania. They were in love and the separation was not easy for none of them. When Alina returns to get some papers, she hopes Voichiţa will go back to Germany with her as work awaits for both of them. But Voichiţa has filled her life with strong commitment to religion and while she still loved Alina she had found what she never had before, a family. Story evolves with the dilemma of staying or leaving that BOTH have and unravels into the known-end as was impossible that their story could have a happy ending.

Of course the above is a very simplistic way to describe the story as this love story is peppered with many decision points that "complicate" the narrative to unimaginable levels, only absolutely amazing Mungiu's creative imagination could make this simple (yet, unconventional) story into a very complex, layered story.

But there is another simple way to describe the story. The tale of how poverty, no-future, ignorance, and religion can make people do unthinkable things, things that were common in darker ages but that should not happen today. What follows has major spoilers and if you wish not to learn them, please skip the rest of paragraph. This tale is told in an Orthodox monastery founded by an ex power plant worker whose life was turned around by an encounter with an Angel, whose church has not been approved by Orthodox authorities and who in private is called Papa, while in public Priest. The monastery has no other men as is inhabit only by nuns with mother superior also called Mama in private and the first in public. It is a tight family with a very strict Papa and a Mama that quietly follows her Papa's will. The few nuns background stories we learn describe situations that have very little to do with faith and more with escaping their previous lives, including Voichiţa's who seems to be the youngest of them all and perhaps Papa and Mama favorite. When Voichiţa's "friend" Alina comes to stay in the monastery, their peaceful monotony is highly disturbed due to conflicts between trying to keep their own peaceful life and helping others, leading them to the ultimate solution: exorcise Alina as the devil inside her is what is making her do everything she does.

And still there is a third simple way to summarize story. The tale of abuse and its consequences. More major spoilers will follow so stop reading paragraph if you wish not to learn them. Alina and Voichiţa were abused in the orphanage by a photographer who took photographs (we assume relationship to child pornography) of many girls, a scandal that later was uncovered and is known to local authorities; is precisely this photographer who finds a "job" (prostitution?) for Alina in Germany. One nun's background story tells about spouse abuse. Alina's foster family abused her in many ways, including stealing money from her. Life in the monastery shows mental abuse by stern priest to submissive nuns. Physical abuse is shown in more ways than with the exorcism. Etc.

Could go on and on with "simple" stories summaries but will stop here to do an exercise, combine the above three simplistic stories into one and there you have some (indeed not all) of what is shown in the screen. It will be up to you to interpret according to your own values what you saw as Mungiu absolutely do NOT take any side, does not influence you in any way and does not give any answers. He just tells a "simple" story in his own particular way.

The Screenplay

The Cannes award winner screenplay written and re-written while filming by Cristian Mungiu can be described by one word: Brilliant!!! Wish to understand more Romanian than what I do, but undoubtedly the richness of the language in this screenplay is perfection to take narrative into what images or actors/non-actors performances couldn't and somehow imagine that much is lost in translation.

The Film as a Film

To me Mungiu's previous film was a strong emotional roller coaster so I was expecting something similar; more clearly I was expecting to feel strong emotions. I did not. I was expecting raw reality told with some hand held camera that gave not great visuals but increased tension and the feeling of emotions. It didn't happened. For me this is a very brainy film in all senses including most tech specs and a few mind blowing awesome images and compositions.

Some indoor and outdoor scenes have outstanding production design and cinematography, a true feast to the eyes, so good that made me wish many more in the screen. None is as impressive as when the nuns take Alina from one side of the monastery to the church as the "black centipede" in the white snow background plus the fast movement make this still camera long-take just unbelievably good. The use of light and darkness is remarkable in many scenes as well as the use of color in the many ways it is used, especially the color palette used inside the chapel that made me recall Russian movies. Storytelling pace is slow, very slow at times, which obviously allows you to see everything that is in the screen plus "think" about what is happening while watching; it is only after the second third of film when pace increases but interestingly enough the use of long takes continues.

Even when director describes the pressure of deadlines while filming and after, you can see the attention given to details in many moments and actors/non-actors performances are remarkable as all make you believe their characters. Especially the two Cannes winners leading actresses that unbelievably follow the complete film style in their performances as even in the more dramatic moments they are immutable, mostly expressionless -even deadpan- and you still clearly see what the character is feeling deep inside.

Chirstian Mungiu has done another amazing film, very different to his previous work and yet remarkable in its own way; now I am "dying" to see what comes next from him and just hope it doesn't take much time. But know he will take his time as his artistry is not based on rushing, but on well-crafting all movie elements.

Closing Remarks

As mentioned in the beginning, read many story interpretations but none captured my attention more than the one that compared story to totalitarianism or what Romanians had to live while under totalitarian regime. Until I read interpretation this idea was not in my head, but now think that is a possibility as story could be describing totalitarian ruling, the one that comes from government but also from religion.

Yes, film has some lesbian interest BUT film is not what I can call a lesbian interest movie as is SO different to what the genre does that know that many looking to watch for this reason will be disappointed and surely many will not stand the film very slow pace as more than three thirds of film have very slow storytelling style and narrative. But the last comment is also true for general audiences. Of course I highly recommend watching film but believe some will like it while some will not, still there is no doubt that for whatever reason film will stay long in your head.

Know will see film many more times looking for what could be hidden inside the "obvious" story, but the next time for sure will see it as a totalitarian story.


Watch trailer @MOC

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