In an isolated Orthodox convent in Romania, Alina (Cristina Flutur) has just been reunited with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) after spending several years in Germany. The two young women have supported and loved each other since meeting as children in an orphanage. Alina wants Voichita to leave and return with her to Germany, but Voichita has found refuge in faith and a family in the nuns and their priest, and refuses. Alina cannot understand her friend’s choice. In her attempt to win back Voichita’s affection, she challenges the priest. She is taken to hospital and the people of the monastery start to suspect that she is possessed.

Monastery life stifles love in long, sincere drama.

CANBERRA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It’s usually far better to walk into a film not expecting much than it is to go with the anticipation of some kind of masterpiece, a forecast which few films can ever hope to live up to. The general consensus at Cannes 2012 was Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to his gruelingly tense Palme d’Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, was a disappointment. But approaching this story of hysteria in a monastery with expectations thus lowered, this viewer found it more rewarding than anticipated.

Mungiu again showing a disciplined talent for staging the action using long takes

That’s not to say it is without problems – at two and a half hours the film, inspired by a true story, is too drawn out, and many will find it overly ponderous. But what this critique of religious irrationality and the failures of institutions does have is a sincere humanism and a very palpable dramatic intensity, with Mungiu again showing a disciplined talent for staging the action using long takes.

Mungiu may or may not consider himself a feminist sympathiser, but his empathy for the plight of young women cast adrift in a male world is starting to look like more than a passing interest. His 2 Months had two young women at the mercy of a sexually predatory male illegal abortionist. In broad terms, Beyond the Hills is similarly built, though this time its setting and themes smack of the high seriousness of Ingmar Bergman with – as incongruous as it may sound – echoes of the hysterical psyche-space of Ken Russell’s The Devils.

Best friends-turned-lovers who grew up together in an orphanage, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) are reunited when the latter arrives home via train from Germany, where she may or may not have been waitressing. Alina is clearly distressed, may have been having suicidal thoughts (or so it’s hinted), and is overjoyed to be reunited with her loved one.

But things have changed. Voichita has not only settled into the routines of life at an Orthodox monastery of nuns, perched on a bleak hillside and ruled over by a fundamentalist male priest (Valeriu Andriuta), but her devotion to God makes it hard to think about the more worldly variety of love. The apparent rejection sends Alina over the cliff, her underlying problems erupting into a violent fit that brings temporary hospitalisation before the priest reluctantly agrees to allow her to stay longer at the monastery. But in this semi-medieval environment, tragedy is inevitable.

It’s significant that all the characters, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic, have the best of intentions – they at least think they’re doing the right thing, even when clearly they are not. Mungiu leaves the precise cause of Alina's emotional disturbance ambiguous. There are hints she may be schizophrenic, and yet in the monastery she sometimes appears the only clear-thinking person in a medieval world of dogma and moralism.