Monday, March 25, 2013

Beyond the Hills (orig. Dupa Dealuri) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Chicago SunTimes (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Chicago SunTimes (S. Boone) review
Chicato Tribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (S. Tobias) review

Beyond the Hills (orig. Dupa Dealuri) [2012] is an award winning Romanian language (English subtitled) film directed and screenplay by Cristian Mungiu based on the non-fiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran that could serve as a much needed corrective to the plethora of increasingly problematic Hollywood "exorcism" movies that IMHO honestly don't serve the Church much good except to marginalize us further into a ghetto of superstition and needlessly stupid backwardness.

The story that plays out is based on a true incident in which a young female Novice to an Orthodox Christian Monastery in rural Moldova (today an independent country but linguistically/culturally related to Romania) died as a result of an exorcism performed on her that "went awry" (and it would appear that ALL concerned were in agreement that in better circumstances the exorcism probably would not have been performed at all ...).  Please don't get me wrong.  I do believe in the existence of Evil and I do certainly believe in the existence of the Devil.  BUT ANY HONEST CATHOLIC/CHRISTIAN would understand, and the Catholic hierarchy in this matter is CERTAINLY HONEST, the need for Exorcisms is _rare_. 

So what happened here?  Well the fictionalized case (set in the film in rural Romania) is as follows: Two young women, Voichita (played by Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (played by Cristina Flutur) had grown-up together in a Romanian orphanage.  After reaching maturity, Alina went to Germany and found work there while Voichita stayed in Romania.  The film begins at a Romanian train station with Alina having come back to fetch Voichita to take her back with her to Germany.  Voichita, however, had found another calling in the meantime.  She had become a Novice at a Orthodox Christian Monastery in the hills outside of town (hence the name of the film...).  So when Alina arrives, she takes her with her to her new home.

Now here something needs to be said that I do believe was excellently portrayed in the film but none of the American movie-critics that I cite above were able to catch or appreciate it: Life at the Monastery, while austere and certainly regimented was also freely chosen.  Absolutely no one had a gun to their heads to come or to stay.  There were simply rules and the price of staying at the Monastery was respecting the rules. (One thing that I've long respected about the Orthodox Christians is that they are quite serene in their faith: Whether or not one chooses to accept their faith/way of life is up to the individual.  They simply march on, whether or not any particular individual buys into it or not.  At the end of an excellent documentary called Russian Reserve [2010] about a Russian Orthodox priest and his little church in a small village somewhere in the middle of the Russian Steppe, the priest simply declares to the documentary's viewers: "There is no need to 'Save the World,' because it will outlast us.  There's no need to 'Save the Church' because it will save us.  There's no need to 'Save Russia,' one simply needs to love it.  There's no need to 'Save the Village,' one simply needs to live in it."  Again, there's IMHO a remarkable serenity in Orthodox Christianity ;-): "You're free to join us but whether you do or not, we'll go on without you." ;-).  How's that as a serene reply to ever  "exquisite" contemporary American narcissism? ;-)

So this then forms the backdrop to the story.  The "problem" isn't "the Church," here, the problem is the conflict existing in Voichita: Alina desperately loves Voichita (yes, in the carnal, lesbian sort of way).  But Voichita would prefer to put that past behind her and spend the rest of her life in the Monastery.  Since Voichita won't budge, Alina who doesn't even believe in God, in increasing desperation CHOOSES TO TRY to join the Monastery as well.  OF COURSE SHE "DOESN'T FIT IN," which is obvious to everyone, to Alina, to Voichita, to Father superior ("Papa" played by Valeriu Andriuta) who presides at the Monastery's church and to Mother superior ("Mama" played by Dana Tapalaga) who presides over the nuns consecrated, of course, to perpetual celibate chastity.  And with every rejection of every advance that Alina makes toward Voichita, she gets increasingly desperate to the point that after an incident where she wanted to throw herself down the Monastery's well, the nuns call the paramedics/ambulance.  They take her to the local hospital.  There after a few days in a straight-jacket, they release her "home."

BUT THERE IS NO HOME.  Alina (like Voichita) is an orphan.  She has nobody.  The foster family in town that took care of her in her later teenage years has another girl in their charge.  Now, if the Monastery could be faulted in anything, it should be faulted for not simply EXPELLING Alina for her own good saying in effect: "You're in your 20s.  Yes, you have no job and no family, but YOU CAN'T STAY HERE, you don't believe in God for goodness sake..." ;-).  Instead, with truly tragic Christian concern, THEY KEEP HER (and Voichita, who I honestly would have expelled as well...) even as ALINA gets more eratic/crazier by the day.

That's when Mother Superior tells "Papa" why don't you "do those prayers over her (perform an exorcism). It MAY give her peace." "Do you know what you are asking?  I can't do this without permission of her family and in the presence of OTHER PRIESTS."  But there is no real family (okay there is actually a simple brother of hers, who actually does menial work at the Monastery, and told that it could do her some good, agrees to it) and THEY'RE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE in the ROLLING HILLS OF RURAL ROMANIA.  So there aren't exactly a ton of priests with nothing to do but come over from miles away to (ROLLING THEIR EYES) help perform an Exorcism on a troubled woman who ALL KNEW WAS TROUBLED but also ALL BASICALLY KNEW WASN'T POSSESSED TO BEGIN WITH.  But after Alina sets her Cell (room) on fire, "Papa" decides to give it a shot.

Now, POSSESSED OR NOT, NO ONE is going to be willingly exorcised.  So Alina has to be tackled, tied to a makeshift stretcher and then taken into the Chapel to be "prayed over" (Again, I honestly would have expelled her...again FOR HER OWN GOOD, but I do actually buy the sincerity of this group that decided to try to "pray over her" to try to give her Peace).

Well after A FEW DAYS OF THIS Alina PASSES-OUT and after the Monastery calls in the paramedics, in the presence of the paramedics SHE DIES.  How to explain all this to the authorities?  WELL "Papa" and the nuns DON'T TRY TO HIDE ANYTHING and appear completely willing to serenely accept "come what may."

What a tragedy and HONESTLY what a great if excruciatingly sad film.

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