NEW YORK — In 2005, a harrowing story began emanating out of Romania about a young woman who had been living at an isolated hilltop monastery, overseen by an eccentric priest and a pack of devoted nuns. She’d been rushed to a hospital suffering from dehydration, exhaustion, and respiratory failure. Doctors discovered abrasions on her wrists and ankles that indicated she’d been restrained, and the local police were sent to investigate.
They were told that the 23-year-old woman had been hearing voices and violently mocking the priest with profane outbursts. Although she’d recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia, the cleric and his nuns became convinced she was possessed by a demon. As her condition deteriorated, they chained her hands and feet to a wooden board and gagged her with a towel. For the next three days the priest performed an exorcism that would have dire consequences for everyone involved.
The news shocked and polarized Romania, generated headlines throughout the world, and led to hang-wringing and soul-searching in a country where orthodox religious observance has flourished since the veil of Communism was lifted in the early ’90s. The priest and four nuns were arrested and stood trial.
To the Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, whose breakthrough work “4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days” captured the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007, the media had perpetuated an inherently reductive image of his countrymen as a backward, medieval people who practice witchcraft and sorcery. Still, the story intrigued him deeply, not only because of the social and cultural factors that were at play in the tragic tale — lack of education, bureaucratic incompetence, institutional dysfunction, and fanaticism of all stripes — but also because of the questions it raises about what he calls “the sometimes relative concepts of good and evil” and “the sin of indifference.”
Mungiu decided to make a film about this event, and the resulting work, “Beyond the Hills,” opens in the Boston area April 5. Inspired by two nonfiction books about the disturbing saga written by former BBC Bucharest reporter Tatiana Niculescu Bran, “Beyond the Hills” earned glowing reviews and captured the best screenplay and best actress awards (shared by its two leads) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“The real event was completely ruined by the way it was treated by most of the press,” said Mungiu, during an interview last fall while in town for screenings at the New York Film Festival. “They embellished a lot — about her being tied to a cross, like she was Jesus. So I spent a lot of time writing and shooting the film to make sure that it wouldn’t be sensational and melodramatic, like a Hollywood film. Because that’s not the point. The point was not to make ‘The Exorcist 2’ but to avoid that kind of thing completely and just speak about people.”
He read Bran’s books and saw a 2007 stage production based on them, directed by visionary auteur Andrei Serban. As a former journalist himself, Mungiu, 44, was intent on digging deeper to understand how something like this could happen. But he was not interested in making a docudrama-style film, despite the naturalism that suffuses his work.
The story that Mungui crafted, which is loosely derived from the real-life saga, centers on two young women, Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who reunite after several years apart, having grown up together at a ramshackle orphanage in a small village near the border with Moldovia. Although they went their separate ways — Alina to work in Germany, Voichita opting to become a nun at a hilltop monastery — the two have stayed in touch, bonded like sisters in love and support. But Voichita, having found faith and a sense of purpose at the monastery, seems a bit distant. The anxious Alina wants her best friend to come with her back to Germany and becomes agitated when Voichita refuses.
“They’re such different personalities,” said Flutur, during a visit to New York with Stratan in December. “Alina is brave and more free inside. Whereas, Voichita is not. Voichita is looking for a system, for structure, for safety . . . Voichita [parrots] the words of the priest. Alina asks her, ‘Why can’t you just talk as a human being anymore? You don’t even use your own words, your own ideas.’ ”
Suspicious of the clergyman’s intentions and frustrated with Voichita, Alina explodes and attacks him in a fit of rage. She is taken to a local hospital for treatment and diagnosed with an unspecified mental illness, but released after a few days by a psychiatrist, who prescribes medication but also suggests that the routine of the monastery might be good for Alina. When she returns there, things take a darker and more desperate turn, and Voichita is torn about how to help her friend in her time of need.
“The film speaks also about responsibility and guilt,” says Mungiu, one of the leading cinematic lights of what’s come to be called the Romanian New Wave. “For example, with religious leaders, they will tell you the rules that you need to follow. But in the end, the responsibility is yours. So it’s about choices and free will and the need to make decisions with your own head and to not be guided by other people.”
The film strongly hints that Alina may be in love with Voichita, and there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between the two women.
“Alina is building a dream, and on the top of the dream is this relationship with Voichita. But when Voichita says ‘No,’ it’s like the whole dream comes crashing down,” Flutur said.
Mungiu wants viewers to reach their own conclusions. He said that he took his time to find the rhythm of each scene and employed sustained takes in order to better capture a sense of reality and of passing time. In particular, he wanted to avoid simply condemning the priest and the coterie of nuns, who believe that Alina is possessed by the devil. To do that, he put the viewer into the shoes of the perpetrators — and Voichita, who is complicit in choosing not to intervene.
“I wanted to make a film where you try to place yourself in their position,” he said. “I was trying to understand: How did everybody get caught up in this? Why did they act this way? Why did the events happen like this?”
Upon closer inspection, Mungiu argues, it’s difficult to pinpoint where the moral boundaries between good and bad are crossed.
“Everything advances little by little,” he said. “With each step, it seems to be the logical thing to do. They react to each other and the situation as it happens. They don’t rush to make decisions for her. They sent her to the hospital at the beginning. Still, at the end, you say, ‘Oh, that’s wrong what they all did.’ But where did things go from right to wrong?
“It’s a very good opportunity to investigate how violence can advance within a group of people. Just imagine: They were all sitting and eating at the same table, and a few weeks later, they were able to tie this girl up and make crucial decisions about her life. So how do you get from this Moment A to this Moment B? This is why I ended up with 240 pages of screenplay.”
Loath to simply castigate the individuals involved in the incident, Mungiu argues that the social and cultural context is paramount to understanding the tragedy — from lack of education and widespread poverty to the byzantine health care system, the indifferent social welfare agencies, and intolerant, authoritarian religious institutions.
“The guilty parties are there in the biography of these people, in what has happened to them in their lives and what has happened in the country over the last 50 to 60 years. Why are people so poorly educated? What can we do with this kind of poverty that influences people to be so superstitious? How do you explain to people the difference between religion and superstition? People pay so much attention to all the rituals, but they don’t appreciate the point of behaving like a good Christian.”
In his starkly unsentimental 2007 masterwork, “4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” about a young woman trying to help her friend secure an illegal abortion in the waning days of the Ceausescu regime in the late 1980s, Mungiu trained his withering, pitiless gaze on totalitarianism and a dysfunctional Romanian society. With “Beyond the Hills,” viewers may wonder if the post-Soviet bloc nation — with its newfound trumpeted freedoms — is all that different from the oppressive Communist era.
“Religion has a place in repairing the moral fiber of people who lost part of their moral conscience by being exposed to continuous Communist propaganda,” Mungiu said. “But if you just replace one type of propaganda with another type of propaganda, you’ll get nowhere. People need to be encouraged to think for themselves.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the opening date for “Beyond the Hills” has been moved to April 5.