SEPTEMBER 21, 2013
I AM A FAN of the Romanian New Wave. Films like The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005), 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007), California Dreamin’ (Cristian Nemescu, 2007), Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009), and Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, 2010) have moved me with their sincerity. Their young directors departed from the navel-gazing intellectual dissidence of late socialist film and the populist genres of post-socialist cinemas alike. Instead, they came up with a direct, pathos-free, darkly humorous way of documenting the economic and emotional rubble left behind by Nicolae Ceauşescu, which not only won a great deal of recognition at international festivals but also drew some of the audiences back to Romania’s movie theaters.
It is widely agreed that the stylistic key to the films’ addictive immediacy is their documentary realism. The filmmakers claim they do no more than observe certain events, which are often merely identified by objective spatial or temporal parameters: 4 months, 3 weeks…, 12:08, east of Bucharest, or Tuesday after Christmas. We watch how ordinary people’s days turn grotesque under extraordinary circumstances. The extreme long takes, punctuated only by naturalistic dialogue and onscreen noises, refuse to mitigate or interpret for us the painful details that unfold: the blunders of a provincial television reporter dealing with panelists who leave in the middle of the interview, doctors who make personal phone calls over the dying bodies of their patients, a college girl who pays for an illegal abortion by having sex with the abortionist, her friend, who disposes of the fetus, and an array of overreaching policemen and confused family members. The situations invariably turn absurd because they take place within crumbling social institutions whose only purpose seems to be to deprive everyone involved of any last shred of dignity.
Cristian Mungiu’s new film follows the aesthetic path of close docufictional observation paved by his earlier Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But this film is based on a situation that’s inherently absurd: a real-life case of exorcism with a tragic ending, which happened in a Moldavian monastery in 2005. The film revolves around two young women, Alina and Voichiţa, who grew up in an orphanage where they presumably suffered abuse and received their only positive emotional connection from each other. They live in a world where work is scarce, and people do desperate things to survive. Alina, the physically stronger and more adventurous of the pair, goes to Germany to do menial labor. In Alina’s absence, Voichiţa joins a monastery. We learn that she is one of the lucky ones. There are other orphans who are eager to take her place in the monastery — a place without electricity or running water, where nuns and novices live in spartan cells in the dead of winter.
A film about exorcism in Romania immediately opens the floodgates of Orientalist associations about the land of Dracula, a backward society permanently left behind by modernity. Indeed, a number of reviews narrow in on the lack of political progress and the return of medieval mysticism in the post-Ceauşescu spiritual wasteland. The film recalls a notorious Folgers commercial from 2008, a wintry Victorian tableau of a poor village hidden among dark mountains, identified as “Romania,” which is only brightened up by a precious jar of Folgers coffee. As one interviewer put it, the film offers “long, stark shots of a dream-like Romania lost in time, straddling the fence between past and present, East and West.”
Mungiu claims he was after something else, that he was “attracted by the complexity of the incident, by the multiple layers it brought into focus.” For Mungiu, the film speaks about “education, religion, poverty, superstition, ignorance, the relativity of good and evil, the malfunction of social institutions, free will and indifference in the modern society.” Elsewhere, he says:
[I]t’s not just about a local story but it speaks about attitudes, values and a certain way of understanding religion and about a way of making personal choices — that can be met in all cultures, on all continents.
In this sense, the case of these Romanian girls only exemplifies what happens when the mantra of self-reliance fails to cover up the absence of functioning institutions. Rather than the stuff of horror movies or a proof of Romania’s refusal to leave behind the Middle Ages, exorcism is an extreme metaphor, illustrating what happens when fragments of religious charity are the only resort to help the helpless. While the actual narrative context is undeniably tied to Romania’s recent history — the legacy of the orphanages, the dismal state of the health care system, the corruption of political authority, and the subsequent rise of the Orthodox Church — the protagonists’ plight is only an extreme version of situations that are increasingly familiar in virtually everyone’s backyard, including the austerity-ridden eurozone and the debt-ridden United States. Screaming inequality, precarious existence, and the accompanying shift of loyalty from governments to churches are global symptoms of the erasure of the tax-funded safety net following the triumph of economic neoliberalism.
As Mungiu suggests, the film is an apt parable of late capitalist conditions well beyond the hills of Romania. Rather than indicting communism, the film demonstrates the failure of the free market to generate welfare. Ceauşescu’s dictatorship, communist in name only, doesn’t need any further indictment anyway. It was already a brutal top-down austerity program, where the one percent lived in luxury and the 99 percent near starvation.
In this respect, Beyond the Hills, much like the other films of the Romanian New Wave, functions like a reality TV program that’s been turned inside out, divested of the safeguards that make it acceptable and even enjoyable to watch others fail. There is no musical track to guide our emotions, no commercials to remind us of our consumer power, no coached efforts at self-improvement, and no emotional catharsis that would promise a successful post-makeover life. If we peel back these elements, reality programs that offer improvement through individual lifestyle makeovers reveal a collective desperation that is only different from that in the film by degrees, not in its ideological essence: a world where tax-funded institutions have been replaced by random acts of private assistance. At the same time, just outside the aspirational world of televisual charity, millions fill underfunded emergency rooms or die without insurance, schools teach creationism and abstinence, and elected politicians make excuses for rape.
The movie begins when Alina returns to reunite with Voichiţa and take her back to Germany. She is feverish and prone to a violent intensity that suggests mental health issues. The film then takes us through a catalogue of support mechanisms that would normally assist people like them: the passport officer, who distractedly interrogates Voichiţa while engrossed in a conversation with a co-worker about whether someone’s husband has two anuses (one of those absurdly comical yet highly realistic Eastern European moments); Alina’s former foster family, who have only ever seen her as a source of labor and money, and have already replaced her with another orphan; the hospital, where they chain Alina down, and where the doctor, instead of issuing a diagnosis, casually prescribes her a combination of pills and Scripture reading before forcing her back into the hands of the nuns; and the nuns, who, under instructions from their priest, chain Alina down and prescribe her a long list of penances to atone for her sins. To make the cleansing process more efficient, in another frighteningly hilarious scene, the nuns, casually knitting in a circle, attempt to go through the 464 entries in the official list of sins handed to them by “Papa,” the priest, so that Alina can mark off the ones she has committed. As it becomes clear, most of these sins have to do with questioning the Church’s absolute authority, which makes this a hopeless exercise.
Following the frustration with the sin list, Alina falls back into violent delirium, prompting the nuns to chain her down again and treat her the only way they are able: by unleashing an exorcism ritual on her. Although she dies in the monastery at the end of the ordeal, it is not at all clear where the blame lies for her death. In the real-life case of Irina Cornici, the priest and four of the nuns went to jail. But the case remains morally unresolved in BBC journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran’s two nonfiction novels, on which Mungiu’s film is based. At the end of the film, the nuns and the police are equally confused. The doctor who pronounces Alina dead rants about religious superstition but then promptly proceeds to chat with someone on the phone about her own sad life. The film ends in this muddy ethical terrain, with slush literally splashed over the windshield of the police van transporting the accused priest and nuns to the prosecutor’s office.
This is a very cold world, where one shivers just looking at the frigid landscape and the nuns’ hard, joyless lives. Like the mud, the cold easily extends into an allegory of a brutal world where responsibility for others is perpetually deferred, and where an increasing number of people can never even dream of lifting themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. The place beyond the hills stretches well beyond Romania.
An important aspect of the film’s moral ambiguity is that the two victims who fall through the cracks are young women who love each other. Critics have pointed out the fact that the film resembles the narrative pattern of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where two girls help each other survive against hostility and prohibition represented by male authority figures. In interviews, Mungiu dismisses this as a superficial similarity and steers the conversation back to the universal significance of his films. “I don’t think in terms of male/female characters when I think about my characters: I believe that as a storyteller, you either understand the human nature or you don’t — gender is irrelevant.”
I don’t question Mungiu’s honesty; it is quite possible that the protagonists’ gender was not his explicit concern in these films. But like the 1982 Hungarian film Another Way, which provided the blueprint for what has become a recurring pattern of depicting homoerotic female friendship in Eastern European cinemas, gender and sexuality are very relevant. Another Way is a historical drama directed by Károly Makk and co-written by lesbian writer Erzsébet Galgóczi, on whose story Another Love (1980) the script is based, about a tragic affair between journalist Éva and her married female colleague Lívia. It takes place in the Budapest of 1958, two years after the failed uprising against Soviet communism. The scene that opens and closes the film, whose plot is told in retrospective narration, shows Éva as she is shot dead by guards on the Austro-Hungarian border. The way she is removed from the plot metaphorically lays the blame for her death at the feet of communist authorities. But it also teaches a lesson to all those who diverge from the correct path of livable choices. Éva’s lover, Lívia, is also punished: injured by her vengeful husband, she ends up in a wheelchair, unable to bear children.
Tragic lesbian love is a feasible allegory for signifying the failure of rebellion against oppression because an Eastern European lesbian in the 1980s (transposed into the 1950s) was an aberration, a contradiction in terms, someone not viable as anything but a symbol from the start. Her obsession with another woman verged on possession and needed to be exorcised. The allegorical depiction of this tragedy earned the film the FIPRESCI prize for its stand for freedom and human rights. But the praise was conferred on the figure of the white, cosmopolitan male auteur, who took a courageous stance of intellectual dissidence against the regime. It remained entirely removed from the cause of sexual equality, leaving real-life lesbians in nameless and illegal invisibility, as it is shown in Mária Takács’s excellent 2009 documentary, Secret Years.
After the collapse of socialism, the figure of the lesbian has become more frequent in Eastern European films. While the homoerotic relationships have become more explicit, often as a titillating boost to the box office, the basic pattern set by Another Way has prevailed: The pair always consists of a “real” lesbian and a woman who has merely strayed from the straight norm but can be led back to a patriarchal family of sorts, whether that’s represented by a husband, boyfriend, politician, or a religious family headed by “Papa.” The “real” lesbian is invariably too rash, too intense to be likable, prone to violence, and borderline mental. As an abnormal creature, she is often examined through the cold gaze of various disciplinary figures such as doctors and policemen, and surveilled by other agents of heteronormativity such as co-workers and neighbors. While the watchers are implicitly criticized as prejudiced, the lesbian’s intensity proves unsustainable when she crosses over into the realm of the taboo, the pathological, or the criminal. After the lesbian is removed, her lover, though hurt and punished for her transgression, is shown the way back to normalcy by a benevolent male character.
For instance, in Croatian Dalibor Matanić’s Fine Dead Girls (2002), Iva and Marija rent a dilapidated apartment in Zagreb. When the snoopy landlady’s son Daniel rapes attractive Iva, hot-headed Marija attacks him and pushes him into the way of an oncoming train. The tenants, led by Daniel’s mother, gang up on Marija and kill her in revenge. The narrative is told in retrospect by Iva, whose interrogation by the police frames the film. In the final scene, Iva is united in a family embrace with her former boyfriend, now husband, and their young son. Slovenian Maja Weiss’s Guardian of the Frontier (2002) and Romanian Tudor Giurgiu’s Love Sick (2006) both depict lesbianism as a temporary lifestyle choice embedded in the experimentations of college girls. Furthermore, there is strong indication in both films that the girls transgress because of damaged families and unsatisfying experiences with men: adventurous Kiki’s perversion in Love Sick turns out to be the extension of her incestuous relationship with her brother. Wide-eyed Alexandra is seduced by Kiki’s dangerous energy but learns her bitter lesson by the end of the film, leaving Kiki to perish in her own sick downward spiral. At the beginning of Guardian, Alja is lectured by an overbearing father and bored by an unimpressive boyfriend. During a camping trip, she falls for the excitement lesbian Zana offers. The trip is interrupted by omens that warn against transgression and is abruptly ended after they have sex. Alja returns to the boyfriend and Zana has a psychotic breakdown. What all these “lesbian” films have in common is that they take up lesbianism only as an idea. Its metaphorical range may cover various shades of transgression, but it remains fatefully separated from the “normal.” The lesbian characters who insist on their sexual difference might be heroic, but they also sentence themselves to martyrdom; the ones who experiment with sexual difference are steered back to the norm.
Mungiu’s couple is clearly a descendant of the tragic lesbian lineage. While it isn’t clear if there was any physical relationship between the women in the real-life case of exorcism, the film gives a strong hint at such a relationship when Alina first arrives in the monastery and provokes a half-naked rubdown from Voichiţa in an evident reminder of their old intimacy. Voichiţa thinks about it but resists, explaining later: “I don’t love you in that way any more.” When asked about the ambiguity of the relationship, Mungiu says that Alina is someone who “could be regarded as perfectly sane but just not conventional; a rebel, if you want, a borderline personality. […] for some people, she is clearly possessed. For others she’s clearly sick.” And, “She’s different […] she’s not conformist: she has the strength and boldness to confront people.”
I quote this explanation not for its truth value, which is beside the point, but because it is eerily similar to those generated around tragic heroine Éva’s “difference” in 1982 and around tragic lesbian characters ever since. In 1982, the creators and the critical community converged in reducing the lesbian protagonist to a figure of universal human issues while insisting that gender didn’t matter and love was universal. Love as an emotion may be universal, but the continued exorcism of lesbian characters keeps the right to live in loving homosexual relationships “outside the law.”
In Beyond the Hills, the painterly tableaux constructed in signature long takes do not only mesmerize with their cold beauty but also build a safe distance between real-life lesbianism and its allegedly universal significance. This distance from the characters feels different from the messier, more empathetic approach to the two women that made 4 Months so powerful. Given that Beyond the Hills was made in international co-production, primarily for cosmopolitan cinephiles, its more remote gaze is understandable. Only on a universal moral common ground may a Romanian film hope to invite foreign audiences to identify with characters whose plight is specific to the country’s troubled transition from scarcity under dictatorship to precarity under post-welfare neoliberalism. Offering a universal platform of identification is also the only way for the director to acknowledge and appropriate the tired clichés that associate Romania with backward mysticism. In the case of the theme of exorcism, this distancing strategy resonates. However, exorcism is both metaphorical and real in this case. It evokes the specter of profound deprivation — but this shines the spotlight on, rather than obliterates, the massive rise of the Orthodox Church in post-communist Romania. This is not the case with the theme of homosexuality. Lesbianism remains a specter, as disconnected from the plight or even existence of real-life lesbians as it was in 1982. The lesbian’s sacrificial exorcism seems to redraw in the cold snow the line where normal ends and the abnormal begins.
The only hope is a change in Voichiţa’s attitude after Alina dies. She loses her meek cadence and becomes hardened, suspicious of the Church. She also packs her things and insists that they take her along to the police inspector’s. As she steps up to be the anchor of our identification, the slush on the police van’s windshield may well indicate her newfound moral ambiguity. Perhaps she can survive without having to be straightened out again.