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Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungui seared himself upon the eyes of American moviegoers with the breathtaking and powerful drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, an explosive chronicle of someone helping a friend get an abortion under the ruthless Communist dictatorship of Ceausescu.
That film, along with others like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest, California Dreaming’ and Police, Adjective, cemented Romania, along with South Korea, as the countries that are making the best films in the world right now.
Mungui’s new film is Graduation, and it’s marvelous. The story revolves around Romeo, a respected doctor known for not breaking the law or rules. But when his daughter is attacked and becomes distracted, he is willing to do anything he can to make sure she finishes her final exams with high enough scores so she can get a scholarship to Cambridge.
Three movies that are each countries’ entry in the foreign film category for the Academy Awards.
The Romanians obviously have issues when it comes to their health care system. First, it was the powerful The Death of Mister Lazarescu wherein an elderly gentleman is shunted from one pompous doctor to another all the while trying to find someone who will take him seriously. And now we have Beyond the Hills, the new film from writer/director Cristian Mungui, in which a doctor releases a young woman, who is showing uncontrollable fits and outrageous behavior of the mental illness genre, back into the hands of the priest and nuns who first brought her in because the doctor thinks they are more likely to be able to help her than he can (and cue Tubular Bells). And when tragedy strikes, a doctor blames the Priest, who is then arrested.
However, the health care profession is not really the central theme here. Beyond the Hills is based on a true incident involving an exorcism which is more the centerpiece. Voichita, the very lonely and often severely depressed aforementioned young woman, looks up her ex-girlfriend Alina who is now staying at a monastery cum nunnery run by the aforementioned priest (this nunnery is an interesting establishment unto itself in that it’s quite Medieval and not when it comes to religious belief, but in that the woman are joining not so much because they have a spiritual calling, but because they can’t find work or a husband). Voichita wants Alina to leave and join her in Germany as they had always planned while growing up in an orphanage together. Alina refuses, having found peace at the nunnery; but soon after, Voichita starts acting like Linda Blair and no one knows what to do.
Mungui came to prominence after giving us 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the devastating must see film about abortion and its illegality under Communist rule in Romania. Beyond the Hills may not have quite the same tension as 4 Months…, at least in the beginning, which is a bit leisurely to say the least. But once Voichita starts spiraling out of control and they decide to do an exorcism because they know of no other way to save her, there is no turning back. It’s a riveting, dark and even devastating piece of filmmaking.
Again based on a true story, sort of, the Italian film Caesar Must Die grew out of a program for prisoners in which they perform a play. Here, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I must be honest. I have no idea what the Taviani brothers (Paola and Vittorio of Padre padrone fame) are trying to do here. It’s not a documentary. It’s obvious that what is being filmed takes place after the production has had its last curtain call, everything is so carefully staged (in a very forced and unbelievable way most of the time), and the rehearsal process is not remotely realistic (even the scripts they use are in screenplay format, not Shakespearian play format). We never get to know the prisoners or find out what any of this means to them or if it affects them in any way. There doesn’t seem to be a moral to the story (except that criminals can be good actors, I suppose, though many would think that’s just being redundant). We don’t even get the joy of Shakespeare’s dialog. He’s actually listed as one of the writers for the movie along with the Tavianis, but I call shenanigans on that. The excerpts from the play are not translated into Elizabethan verse, but into some sort of bastardized, everyday patois (even Et tu, Brute is subtitled into something like, And you, too, Brutus?). The only really interesting aspect of the script for me is the locations the actors choose to “rehearse” (and I mean those end quotes with all sincerity) certain scenes (which, of course, in the context here, would not have been chosen by the prisoners, but by the Tavianis). It might have been interesting to see Julius Caesar staged in a prison in which the convicts’ relationships were reflected by the play, or even to see a straightforward production of the play. But alas, ‘twas not to be. Many people loved it. I was totally lost.
And again based on a true story, or at least inspired by true events in the director Benjamin Avila’s life, the Argentine film Clandestine Childhood opens with an amazing scene of a young boy witnessing a shoot out involving his parents that turns into panels from a graphic novel. It’s an assault on the senses that one doesn’t soon forget. If only the rest of the movie astounded us with as much originality and vibrancy. But this technique is only used a couple more times in the course of the movie and instead the story jumps a few years and a slightly older boy is reunited with said parents in Argentina after growing up in Cuba where his parents had earlier fled and recently returned from so they could continue working against the government. At this point, it all turns into a rather standard, coming of age, first love film, one that you’ve seen a million times before. It’s sweet and effecting at times, but not that much more. What’s surprising is how little tension is added to the central characters flailing for a girlfriend by the background situation he finds himself trapped in. I suppose one could be somewhat comforted in the idea that life goes on even under totalitarian regimes, but I’m afraid that wasn’t enough for me. In the end, a formulaic story is a formulaic story, no matter what form of government runs the country. And in the end, rather than being deeply moved I found myself asking, what were these parents thinking smuggling their kids back into Argentina with death camping out on their doorstep? Easy for me to say, I suppose, sitting here typing as I am without much danger of being imprisoned for life for political thought, but still, the thought did occur to me.