Beyond the Hills is baroque bleak

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      Starring Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur. In Romanian with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Friday, May 24, at the Vancity Theatre

      In this world of head-spinning changes, it’s oddly reassuring to find that it’s still the 12th century somewhere. Of course, that notion isn’t nice for a young woman wanting to get out in the wider world.

      In Beyond the Hills, life is particularly antiquated in a bleak Romanian monastery where one long-bearded priest (Valeriu Andriuta) rules uncertainly over black-clad nuns. The order is upset when one of the youngest members, known as Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), is visited by Alina (Cristina Flutur). They grew up together in an orphanage, and Alina, back from working in Germany, wants to reclaim their relationship, which may have been sexual.

      Voichita wants her closest friend to sublimate earthly desires for Jesus’s sake, but Alina takes even the slightest rebuff as total rejection. Her usual response to conflict is to shut down and explode, often in screaming fits. When she lands in an urban hospital, a befuddled doctor says he can’t identify her disease but that she’s better off recuperating at the monastery. Bad idea.

      All this violent-lesbian-nun stuff could be played for baroque camp, but writer-director Cristian Mungiu (who tackled female oppression in 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days) prefers his humour on the dry, sly, and very slow side. At 150 minutes, Beyond the Hills—informed by journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran’s nonfiction books—makes for challenging viewing in some passages. But Mungiu is a master at building tension, and even without him revealing terrible details, the viewer gets a powerful sense of what went into making these needy souls so lost. You get the feeling, in the end, that few refugees from the 12th century would handle these modern problems any better.

      Watch the trailer for Beyond the Hills.