“Beyond the Hills” is the best demonic possession and exorcism movie I’ve seen in years. Though, it isn’t technically a demonic possession movie because the supposed possessed girl isn’t actually possessed, just mentally troubled.
The director is Cristian Munglu, who directed the 2007 film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 7 Days.” Like that film, “Beyond the Hills” isn’t exactly an upper of a movie. Munglu likes to work in cold, harsh environments. The story takes place at an Orthodox convent on the outskirts of a Romanian town during winter, of course. But like with “4 Weeks,” Munglu brings an immense amount of realism to the picture. It’s brutal but honest. No sugar coating. It moves at a deliberate pace. Most of the individual shots are lengthy (the shortest being perhaps 30 seconds long) and cinematographer Oleg Mutu mainly shoots in close up and medium shots which brings us closer to the emotions and tensions within each scene.
The “possessed” girl is Alina (Cristina Flutur) who, after living in Germany for a while, has come back to the Romanian town to see if her childhood friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who has since became a nun at the Convent, wants to go with her back to Germany. Growing up they both lived in an orphanage but then Alina left to go work and live in Germany, leaving Voichita alone and a little abandoned. But now Alina is back and is the one feeling lonely. Meanwhile, Voichita has found refuge and a sense of belonging (as well as the Lord) at the Convent and doesn’t want to leave, despite the fact that she still cares for her friend. It’s never known for sure, but during some of their scenes together I got the impression that at one time they had more than just a regular friendship.
At this point we find out Alina is seriously troubled (something traumatic could have happened to her while in Germany but again we don’t know) and after attacking a few of the nuns she has an epileptic attack and is taken to the hospital. After a few days she’s quickly shooed away and has nowhere else to go. Voichita begs the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) to let Alina stay at the Convent. He reluctantly agrees but only if Alina finds God. The Monastery is, like the rest of the movie, cold as well as oppressive and claustrophobic. The priest—sporting long curly hair and a lengthy curly beard—is the only male and what he says goes. The rest of the nuns crowd around him and act like skittish sheep, always going to him when there is a problem. And it’s this position he’s in, along with the power and the trust that all of the nuns have in him, that leads to the later troubles in the film.
Alina’s condition worsens, constantly losing her temper and causing trouble. This leads everyone to think she’s possessed and the priest feels confident enough in his priestly abilities to perform the exorcism. Now, of course the problem is Alina isn’t possessed; she’s mentally sick and needs real care. But the priest and nuns are limited in their view. Living in the convent they’re isolated from the world, and don’t ever go out to experience it. They have God and to them that’s enough, except it isn’t. Voichita seems to be the only one who really knows this isn’t the right treatment, but she’s conflicted between helping her childhood friend and her new commitment to the convent. And so the movie is depressing and somewhat infuriating. And the fact that Alina can’t be taken anywhere else is even more depressing and infuriating.
Even so, Munglu’s film is effective and achieves that effectiveness without using any melodrama or clichés. Everything feels authentic; there isn’t a musical score that swells up at key dramatic moments, the interactions and dialogue exchanges between characters feel natural and the actors are all so convincing that you don’t even notice they’re giving performances. The movie may be hard to watch but life isn’t always happy either. As with “4 Months” I’m not sure I’ll be watching “Beyond the Hills” again anytime soon but that doesn’t make it bad and it’s still the freshest movie I’ve seen of late that deals with the topic of demonic possession, even if it isn’t addressed so literally.