Sunday, 10 March 2013

"Beyond the Hills" - why Romanian cinema is so good

Watching a film from eastern Europe after sampling the latest from Hollywood is like visiting parallel universes. Even the best studio movies can’t help telling us not only what is happening but what we are supposed to feel about it.

By contrast, Polish, Czech or Romanian movies like Beyond the Hills, which I saw last night by the Romanian director Christian Mungiu, force you to glean the information just as you do in life, by picking tiny gestures out of the background and adding them up. The goods are there embedded in long, slow takes that give the impression of lives lived in real time—and without musical prompts to explain what emotion should be experienced—which is why these movies often stretch well past the two-hour mark. They require an investment, and there are no shortcuts; but the rewards can be great.

Mungiu is known for a harrowing film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, about getting an abortion in the Ceausescu era (plot summary: avoid this experience). This one is just as eerie in a completely different way: it mostly occurs in a strangely retro orthodox monastery where the sisters draw water from a well and use gas lamps, following a routine that looks alternately cozy and cracked. Modern Romania intrudes from the edges, but its attractions are highly dubious as well, from brutish nurses and dysfunctional transport to vaguely referenced goings-on at the orphanage where the two women protagonists spent their childhood.

There’s plenty of drama and even melodrama in the course of the nearly three-hour exposition, including exorcism, no less. But the telling details look almost accidental: in the very first sequence at a railroad station, an arriving passenger rushes to greet her friend with intense joy and rushes into her arms. If you’re not watching closely, you don’t even notice that she ignores an approaching train to do so.

Little by little and with the lightest of touches, this film lays bare an entire society, yet does not judge so much as mourn that there is not much room for women in it.

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