Beyond the Hills (După Dealuri) Review

Romania, the recent past. Alina (Cristina Flutur) visits Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), her friend and roommate from their childhood in an orphanage. But Voichita is now a member of a religious community run by “Papa” (Valeriu Andriuta) and resists Alina's urgings to leave with her for Germany. As Alina stays, she soon comes into conflict with the community, a confrontation which will not end well.

Romanian cinema dates back over a century, but in the last decade has particularly come to prominence, beginning with Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu winning the Prix un certain regard at Cannes in 2005 and continuing with Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days winning the Palme d'Or at the same festival two years later. That was Mungiu's second feature, and it examined aspects of “the Golden Age”, as propagandists for the country's Communist era would have it. That was followed by Tales of the Golden Age in 2009, a five-episode portmanteau film which Mungiu wrote and of which he directed one segment.

Beyond the Hills (După Dealuri) is his first full feature since 4 Weeks and like its predecessor it won prizes at Cannes, for its screenplay and the two leads sharing Best Actress. As with 4 Weeks it doesn't specify exactly when it's set (though I suspect there are plenty of hints Romanians would pick up which this Brit didn't), but it's clearly set in the post-Ceaucescu era but sometime in the recent past. Disturbingly, it is based on a real-life exorcism case, Mungiu's screenplay derived from two “non-fiction novels” by Tatiana Niculescu Bran.

Much of the way that Mungiu films this will be familiar to viewers of 4 Weeks: the use of two female protagonists and their opposition from a male figure (Papa), and the conflict between authority (the State in the earlier film, devout religion here) and individual freedom, with disastrous results. Stylistically it's similar too: Mungiu shoots most scenes in single long takes, though they're less intricately choreographed than those of fellow sequence-shot specialists such as the late Theo Angelopoulos and the now-retired Béla Tarr. Often Mungiu will keep his camera still or simply pan to follow action, rather than keeping his camera constantly mobile. As before, the film is shot in Scope, and Mungiu makes full use of the wider aspect ratio, sometimes placing characters at the edges of the frame. Mungiu develops his story with some subtlety: it's not spelled out, but Alina and Voichita may have been more than just roommates at the orphanage; it's strongly implied that they were lovers. And in a late scene, a lesser director would have over-emphasised imagery of the cross. The film is never simplistic: Voichita may be torn between her love for her friend and her faith, but that faith is clearly genuine as well.

Beyond the Hills is certainly a long film, but it's a steadily-paced one building up to a devastating climax, helped along by striking performances from the two leads. This is further evidence that Mungiu is a major talent. Beyond the Hills is very impressive.

The Blu-ray

Beyond the Hills

is released by Artificial Eye in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. The one being reviewed here is the Blu-ray, and affiliate links refer to that. For those for the DVD, go here. The disc begins with the usual commercial for Curzon Home Cinema.

Shot in Super 35 and shown in cinemas in Scope, Beyond the Hills is transferred to Blu-ray in a ratio of 2.40:1. You have come to expect a strong transfer on an Artificial Eye Blu-ray and you get one here. The colours are muted, as befits both the story's theme and the wintry setting (snow falls in the later stages). Blacks are solid and shadow detail is fine. I didn't see this in a cinema – which would have most likely have been a 2K DCP rather than 35mm projection anyway - but I've no reason to doubt that this looks as it is intended.

This Romanian-language Blu-ray comes with two soundtrack mixes, DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM Surround (2.0). There's not much to choose between the two, as there isn't a great deal of directional sound and the surrounds are used mainly for ambience. The English subtitles are fixed, which may be an issue if you are fluent in Romanian.

The only extra is the trailer, which runs 1:50. An interview with Mungiu was announced in the press release but was not present on the checkdisc received.

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