Monday, 23 September 2013

Beyond the Hills

Beyond the Hills tells the story – apparently true, or at least based on reality - of two young women, Voichita and Alina, who, after a childhood together in an orphanage somewhere in rural Romania, have gone their separate ways. Voichita has become a novice in a fledgling nunnery near the small town where she grew up. Alina, who has been working in Germany, returns to Romania, and the film opens with the reunion of the two friends.

Voichita collects Alina from the train station and takes her back to the nunnery, which, it soon becomes obvious, Alina wants her friend to leave. Voichita, who feels secure in her new life, tries to explain to Alina that the love of God sustains her. Unfortunately, the only love Alina wants is that of her friend, (it seems fairly likely that some kind of lesbian relationship may have existed between the two when they were younger, although this is never made explicit; it is also pretty clear that sexual abuse took place in the orphanage and the girls were used for pornographic purposes and, although the police are aware this has happened, no-one seems either to be surprised or to care enough to do anything about it).  

When Alina realises she probably won’t get what she wants, she starts to behave erratically and winds up in hospital. Although she is clearly disturbed – possibly schizophrenic - the hospital returns Alina to the nunnery. After that, things go from bad to worse.

As is probably clear from this synopsis, Beyond the Hills is not the cheeriest film ever made. However, it is almost certainly one of the most beautiful, particularly the scenes in the nunnery, which are sometimes reminiscent of Breughel and sometimes of Caravaggio.

More importantly, the film provides a glimpse of a society emerging from years of brutal totalitarian rule. The post-Ceausescu Romania it presents is physically impoverished – most of the time it is as if we are looking at events taking place in a different era to our own, (and this includes when we are in the hospital, which is primitive and decaying, and the police station, where, although one officer is battling incompetently with a laptop, the telephones, files and furniture are all absurdly old-fashioned), so that it comes as a shock when we suddenly find ourselves briefly in the bright shiny surroundings of an OMV petrol station. For a moment, it feels as if we have travelled forward in time.  

But more striking than the physical decay is the moral deficit left behind by the old regime. After years of punitive authoritarianism, trust between the individual and the state appears to have evaporated and any sense of responsibility for one’s fellow citizens – who up until fairly recently have more than likely been informers against you - has vanished as well. Outside the nunnery, indifference and an overriding instinct for individual survival appear to be stronger than any notions of community or compassion.  

Without the protection of a properly functioning state and a strong civil society, freedom probably feels less safe than the system that preceded it, however unfair that was. Perhaps this is why Voichita – and it’s worth remembering that almost her first utterance in the movie is a plea to Alina to stop hugging her and crying as ‘people are looking’, (attracting attention was always dangerous under the Ceausescu regime and old habits die hard) - has chosen to abandon liberty for a small, tightly-controlled community. 

Oddly, while that community provides a refuge for Voichita from the difficulties of post-Ceausescu rural Romania, it can also be seen as a metaphor for the defunct regime itself.  Certainly, Alina, when she challenges the authority of the priest who presides over the community, is dealt with as harshly as any dissident under Ceausescu - and, just as Ceausescu pretended he acted in the interests of the people, so her treatment is supposed to be for her own good.

In the final scenes of the film, Voichita does not speak a single word, even though she is present throughout. She remains quite still, amidst the activity around her. Her eyes stare fixedly before her and her face wears an expression of profound shock. It is as if she is just beginning to become aware of what exactly she’s been complicit in. Could it be that her silent confusion mirrors that of her fellow countrymen as they emerged from the Ceausescu nightmare and looked around at what they had become?

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