Alina (Cristina Flutur) is met at the station by her old friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and is so pleased to see her she throws her arms around the woman and bursts into tears. Alina has been away for some time in Germany, attempting to build a new life for herself, but she missed Voichita so much she couldn't stay away from Romania and sought her out. Now she is back and hoping to persuade her to accompany her back to Germany, but things have changed since the days they were brought up together in an orphanage and developed a very close bond. Voichita now lives in a monastery with a priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and his nuns, and has grown pious in Alina's absence...
The story of the exorcism that went wrong hit the headlines all over the world in the mid-'00s, not just in Romania, and director Cristian Mingui settled on it as a perfect project for him after his recent successes. Some found it a slight letdown after the heights he had reached before, but few could fail to agree the ending, where all his careful building of the plot threads paid off in a genuinely upsetting tragedy, proved he was a filmmaker in full control of his talents. It was just that it took a long time to get there, and while the destination made it worth the hours spent with it, your attention may wander in the lead up to the emotional pay off that constituted the finale.
To go into this level of detail was admirable in one way, but brave, some would say verging on the foolhardy, in others when if you knew the well-publicised actual story it was based on you were more waiting for the hammer to fall than taking in the personalities which Mingui was taking up so much of his attention with. Certainly, and depressingly, this was far from the only case of an exorcism going badly wrong, so even if you had not heard of this particular instance you may be well ahead of the characters; basically to get the most out of Beyond the Hills, or Dupa dealuri as it was titled in its native Romania, it could be better not to know too much about the events it was drawn from beforehand, or indeed many of these sorts of cases.
Even so, there were compensations, not least thanks to the powerful cast with the central relationship of the unstable Alina and the girl she used to know who has moved on one which is coloured by a deep sadness already before the film has moved out of its opening scenes. It is hinted that the girls, now in their mid-twenties, were so close they had a lesbian affair, but if that's true it's decisively over as Voichita has now devoted herself to God, though she still wants to help out her old pal and allows her to move in with her in the remote monastery, at least until Alina can get back on her feet, something Voichita thinks the priest can assist with. However, soon it becomes clear poor Alina is struggling with schizophrenia, and half an hour into the film all hell breaks loose as she has an attack.
After tying her up for want of any other solution, the frightened nuns take the young woman to the nearest hospital where she is diagnosed by a hassled doctor; interestingly, he believes the religious atmosphere may contribute to Alina's wellbeing, but Mingui held back from being too judgemental, preferring to leave that to his characters. What makes this so much more pathetic is the nuns and the priest were in no way qualified to be looking after the woman they decide to cure with exorcism, yet they were not, according to this, acting under some sanctimonious urge as some films could have it, they really did mean well and were hoping for the best for Alina. Needless to say, the intermittently mania-struck Flutur was superb in her role, though that did not overshadow Stratan's quieter, though no less angst-ridden performance, an excellent example of two actresses complementing one another with great skill. If this is seeming like a slog by the halfway point, then stick with it, it did reward the viewer - assuming you wanted to feel thoroughly dejected.