03/26/2013 01:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Popcorn Preview: Beyond the Hills

Film: Beyond the Hills (2012)
Cast includes: Cosmina Stratin, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta
Writer/Director: Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)
Genre: Drama (150 minutes) Romanian with subtitles

"Calm down. Calm down." It's a tearful reunion at the train station between Voichita and her life-long friend Alina. After they meet, they walk all the way through the town, up the long hill and beyond... until they reach the shabby medieval-looking monastery at the top. Apparently Voichita has not yet spoken to the priest about Alina... she thinks it would be better to wait. Alina's gift of an electric candle may look nice, but it won't be very useful... they don't have electricity. Nor do they have running water. It's Voichita's job to bring water in from the well. After Alina settles in, Voichita will speak with Papa. "Papa?" The priest prefers the nuns call him Papa. Alina has a bad feeling... as feared, Papa's not pleased about Voichita's continued friendship with Alina. "Does she go to confession?" he asks. Voichita reminds Papa that she and Alina were best friends at the orphanage and that Alina really needs her help now, as she tires to make a new life for herself in Germany. Voichita promises to return to New Hill Monastery as soon as she can. "I thought you'd decided your path, Voichita. You know that continuity cannot be broken." At the very least, Alina will need a place to stay for a while because she has nowhere else to go. "Have her come to confession tomorrow."

Papa's "all for tolerance... but within reason." Back in Voichita's cell, Alina learns more about Papa's rules... "things have to be different now." Alina does go to confession, but Papa's still not satisfied. He doesn't believe she told him everything. Alina feels Papa's hold over her best friend is unnatural... possibly sinister. She reminds Voichita of the friendship they pledged to each other. Voichita finds herself in the middle between her best friend and Papa, who will not hesitate to use God as a weapon to get his way. Little by little, tension escalates and events become more complex.

Wear a sweater if you see this one because New Hill Monastery is both bleak and cold. Even indoors, characters can often see their breath. A notable aspect of the film is that it gives us an intimate view of the forces that could culminate in events, such as the ones that made front-page news in Romania in 2005. Life in the region is austere. Suicides are not uncommon... leaving children to fend for themselves in dismal orphanages. Life may be no better for those who age out... getting into a desolate monastery could be an 18-year-old's best option. Based on a "non-fiction novel" by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, the film shows a practice that was finally prohibited by the Orthodox Church in 2012... but is said to continue even today. Director Cristian Mungiu was determined not to create a melodramatic exploitation of the 2005 events. As fascinating as this movie is, however, 2.5 hours is very long for American audiences. And you'll need to allow time afterward for a warm bowl of soup and a discussion. Among other things, you'll want to talk about the motivations of the characters. Much is suggested, but nothing is exploited. Mungiu's approach is intentionally non-judgmental. Despite the conclusions other reviewers have reached, Mungiu did not intend for us to come away with simple answers. So keep an open mind and discuss it afterward.

3 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
When a young woman need help from her best friend, a nun in an Orthodox monastery... it puts her on a collision course with the monastery's unyielding priest

Popcorn Profile
Audience: Grown-ups
Distribution: Art house
Mood: Sober
Tempo: In no hurry
Visual Style: Unvarnished realism
Character Development: Intense
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Thought provoking

Read more Popcorn Previews at