Jeremy Hersh is a New York-based filmmaker currently in post-production on his first feature, The Surrogate, for which he’s currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter. His 2015 short, Actresses, screened at Sundance, SXSW, BAMCinemafest and the New Orleans Film Festival, where it won the audience award for best narrative short. Jeremy’s undergraduate thesis short, Natives, premiered at SXSW in 2013.
At least once a year, I come across some list of the “best queer films of all time” and I scroll through ravenously, hoping my favorite queer film will be listed. If the list is 100 films long and ranked, near number 90 it starts to read not as the “best queer films of all time,” but as “queer films of all time.” (I personally could not name 200 queer films that exist.) And yet, while inevitably some film with a near-single-digit Rotten Tomatoes score makes the cut, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills does not.
The reason why is likely not that complicated: Beyond the Hills is a Romanian film that barely had a U.S. theatrical release, and despite being about lesbian nuns, there’s hardly any HLA (Hot Lesbian Action) to speak of — instead, it’s a relentlessly bleak film about the pathologizing and demonizing of disobedient women. But it’s one of my favorite films, and certainly my favorite about queer people.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is a 25-year-old orphaned nun at an Orthodox monastery in early 2000s post-Communist Romania. Alina (Cristina Flutur), who grew up in the same orphanage, comes to the monastery with the intention of picking up Voichita and bringing her back to Germany, where she’s set up employment for the two of them waiting tables on a cruise ship. Voichita tells the priest to whom she reports that she’s just going to help Alina get settled and will return in six weeks. But she’s lying to someone: Alina is under the impression that the two of them are going to run off and never return. See, Voichita and Alina have a romantic and sexual history.
The priest demands that Voichita not leave the monastery even for six weeks, telling her that she won’t be welcomed back if she does. So, Voichita campaigns for the monastery to take in Alina, who agrees to conform. The monastery is a patriarchal, rigid environment, but it makes sense that Voichita would want to stay — she has few other options which guarantee she won’t starve. Upon first viewing, I assumed at this point in the film we would start to see scenes of the two women surreptitiously fucking and then hastily re-robing as the footsteps of the Mother Superior grew closer, and moments of our protagonists deflecting correct rumors spread by the other nuns. But Voichita isn’t pretending to be a devout nun so that she can survive while privately maintaining a queer identity. She actually believes in God, and what’s more, believes in this sect’s and her (30-year-old) priest’s access to God. A lot of disturbing shit happens next (Google “Tanacu exorcism” if you want to read articles about the real-life event which is the subject of the two Tatiana Niculescu Bran books upon which the film is loosely based) but it all begins with this central conflict. More precisely, it all begins on Alina’s first night in the monastery when, heartbreakingly, Voichita turns down sleeping together, saying, “Lent is coming.” (Mungiu won Best Screenplay at Cannes and totally deserved it.)
As the film progresses, the priest’s abuse of Alina (which the rest of the monastery is complicit in) goes from verbal to physical. This becomes the focus of the film, but underneath it all is still the interpersonal and theological conflict between the two women. I love that these two gay female characters are given this agency. They’re not passive. The film never allows us to believe that if somehow these two women were able to live in a homophobia- and sexism-free vacuum that they’d be happy; they’re way more complex than that. When Voichita asks, “Do you still love me?” and Alina responds, “I love you, but not like before,” the thought does cross one’s mind that maybe it’s not about God or Christianity or gender. Maybe she’s just over her. Somehow this thought is more heartbreaking to me than anything else. It’s so resolute!
Beyond the Hills is an aesthetically perfect film. Almost every scene is shot in a single take, meticulously choreographed to feel not choreographed at all. It’s both dynamic and extremely simple. The long takes aren’t austere like a Joanna Hogg or Roy Andersson film, they’re intimate. And Mungiu and his cinematographer Oleg Mutu aren’t showing off. As in their even-better collaboration 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu doesn’t resort to using score to build suspense (there is no music until the end credits). The long takes do all the work of building suspense. The lack of intra-scene cuts subconsciously causes us to hold our breath, hoping for some kind of relief that never comes, mirroring Alina’s existential claustrophobia. The costumes, juxtaposing habits which look centuries old with scrunchies, are iconic. I’m a filmmaker and Mungiu is a huge inspiration for my work. For one thing, he’s the director that taught me scores aren’t always necessary. (I’ve yet to use one in a film of mine.) Sorry, composer friends!
The performances are virtuosic — intense and subtle. The two leads, who are both theater actors, shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes. I hate when filmmakers express reticence about working with theater actors because they’re afraid of the performances being over-the-top. The performances in Beyond the Hills exemplify the characteristic I most associate with actors from theater backgrounds: they’re unadorned. I’m proud that in my debut feature, The Surrogate, every actor with a speaking role comes from a theater background.
To be clear, I don’t want Beyond the Hills to appear on more lists so that my taste can be affirmed. I just want more people to see it. I think a lot of people would love it. And it’s playing at Film Forum on November 24! It’s also on Criterion, but it’s totally the type of movie you need to see on a big screen. Maybe one day it’ll get an American remake (preferably with Tessa Thompson as Voichita and Kristen Stewart as Alina and directed by Dee Rees or Lauren Wolkstein).