This article originally appeared in Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice.
Same-sex marriage. Contraception and health-care coverage. Historical Adam. As these divisive issues continue to back some Christian churches and institutions into a corner, it’s become increasingly crucial to find an answer to this question: how can such places stay true to their religious convictions while also maintaining a vital presence in the public square?
As we consider this dilemma, an applicable parable can be found in the excellent Romanian film Beyond the Hills. The movie won a top prize at last year’s Cannes International Film Festival and played at select American theaters (it’s also streaming online in some markets). Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, one of Romania’s premier filmmakers, the picture largely takes place in an isolated monastery connected to the Romanian Orthodox Church. Though the movie is set in the present day, the denizens of the monastery live as their forebears did hundreds of years ago. Aside from brief forays into the nearby city—to deliver eggs to an orphanage, to seek health care at a hospital—these staunch believers stay within their own walls, following centuries-old rhythms. Indeed, when a troubled young woman arrives at the monastery and finds herself at odds with its beliefs and practices, she’s treated in a way that could be described as medieval.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) comes to the monastery to reunite with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), one of the young nuns. The women had grown up together in a nearby orphanage, then gone their separate ways. While Voichita has found a strict sort of peace at the monastery, Alina has led a restless life that reflects her tormented soul. Given to sudden anger and violent fits, the movie hints that her past has been pockmarked with severe emotional trauma. The monastery’s priest (Valeriu Andriuta) tries to expunge this via rituals of confession and penance, but when that limited theology doesn’t seem to work, he and the other nuns surmise that something more sinister must be going on: demonic possession.
And so, before you know it, Mungiu has plunged us into some sort of art-house exorcism movie. The terror, though, is hardly the kind evoked in something like The Exorcist. Indeed, the scariest thing about Beyond the Hills is that there isn’t a demon to be seen. And so, when there is a desperate return trip to the hospital in the climax, suddenly the movie snaps out of its daze of superstition and into the realm of reality. The picture’s brilliant final shot—whichI won’t give away here—is an image of people who thought they had seen the supernatural being slapped awake by the earthly and mundane.
This may make Beyond the Hills sound like an anti-religion tract—a rigged showdown between religious belief and rational science—but that would be an underestimation of Mungiu’s art. With a patient camera, generous character development and an unwillingness to unnecessarily heighten any scene, he emphasizes detached observation over message making. What’s more, when Beyond the Hills is considered alongside Mungiu’s breakout film—4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, an abortion drama set in the days of Communist Romania—we can see that he is mainly interested in the ways individuals suffer under the impersonal strictures of a firmly entrenched power structure. In 4 Months it was the Communist dictatorship; here it’s religion in general and this isolated monastery in particular.
Yet within that larger canvas, there is a cautionary tale for faith communities in contemporary America. As the ground begins to shift beneath the public square, so that Judeo-Christian ethics give way to secular relativism, the future is unclear for Christian churches and institutions. Will they retreat beyond the hills? Will they close the gates? If they do seek to engage the stranger from the outside world, will they do so with grace and compassion or with reactionary measures?
Of course most Christians do not hold institutional influence, as the priest does in Beyond the Hills. Yet each of us is something like Voichita. There are two particularly striking shots in Mungiu’s movie, in which a number of unfocused figures are busy at a task in the foreground, while Voichita’s face—held in focus—intently observes from the background. Confusion, alarm and eventually horror begin to play out across her features. A dear friend to Alina and at the same time a devoted believer, Voichita’s struggle is like that of the Christian living within the public square. When our religious practices come up against our contemporary reality, what will give?