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The languors of the heart in ‘Beyond the Hills’

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Voichita Cosmina Stratan

Alina Cristina Flutur

Antonia Catalina Harabagiu

Mother Superior Dana Tapalaga

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Cristian Mungiu. Inspired by the nonfiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 150 minutes. No MPAA rating (brief, ambiguous, demonic possession). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.

Updated: April 16, 2013 3:10PM

Neither prayers to St. Basil nor a Zyprexa prescription will save an agitated woman who spits at nuns as Easter approaches. An exorcism follows, with no evident God or Satan. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu, drawing on a 2005 incident, reveals a secular crisis in post-communist Romania in “Beyond the Hills.”

Mungiu ponders his country’s plight by focusing on caretakers. Two college roommates deal with an underground abortionist in his darker “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” (2007).

“Beyond the Hills,” Romania’s entry for this year’s foreign film Oscar, reunites two women raised in an orphanage. They moved to Germany where they lived and worked together. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) returned to join a Russian Orthodox monastery. As the film begins, a visiting Alina (Cristina Flutur) wants to persuade Voichita to work on a cruise ship with her.

“People change, Alina,” Voichita tells her dear friend. They sleep apart. Alina has changed, too. “She’s all alone with her thoughts,” Voichita explains to the order’s patriarch. “Papa,” as the nuns address him, disapproves of his novice interrupting her spiritual training: “The West has lost the truth path.”

Alina is untethered. She convulses and lashes out. The nuns take her to the town’s hospital. The staff psychiatrist puts her in restraints. Prayer might help, too, he figures. Discharged, Alina returns to the monastery. Her condition worsens. The priest diagnoses possession, so the nuns chain her to a cross-like board and gag her. Again the paramedics are called. It is too late. Now her caretakers face charges of homicide as a result of religious malpractice.

Mungiu observes this tragedy without resorting to supernatural touches or true-crime formula. His sound design unsettles with unseen elements: the roar of a jet passing overhead and a thunder that feels subterranean. Somewhere, dogs are barking. Hand-held long takes deliver artful tableaus in wintry outdoor scenes, as well as intimate interiors. Credit goes to cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who shot Mungiu’s last film, as well as Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005), a Romanian realist drama based on a news item about a man who died after a series of hospitals turned him away.

“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” ended with a shot of a window flecked with headlights of passing cars. A woman looks outward, into the lens. The final shot in “Beyond the Hills” likewise accosts the audience. The windshield of a police van is abruptly splashed with slush, cynically denying sight into Romania’s soul.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based free-lance reviewer.

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