In 2005, a 23-year-old Orthodox nun died after three days without food or water in a Moldavian monastery. The young woman, Maricica Irina Cornici, had been chained to a cross, gagged and left in a room to exorcise the devil out of her. A monk and four nuns were arrested and charged with aggravated murder. There was a question if the deceased nun might have been mentally ill and this is something that Romanian director Cristian Mungiu examines in his bleak fictional movie, "Beyond the Hills." The movie opens on 15 March 2013 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
Mungiu won Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2012 for this narrative. Mungiu doesn't employ the special effects of horror stories, with heads twisting unnaturally and green liquids spewing messily all over the room. Here the horror is all too real: Two systems incapable of dealing with mental illness, fatally mishandle a situation. But the story Mungiu tells also looks at the different ways we find love and family.
The movie begins with a pale young woman, Alina (Cristina Flutur), arriving in a small town by train. She's returned to Romania to see her friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). They were both orphans, growing up together under trying circumstances. At some point, they separated. Alina has been working in Germany and wants to take Voichita there with her, but Voichita has found her own vocation and a family in a church with nuns.
For Alina, Voichita may be the only thing like family she ever knew, and their affection might have also translated into a physical love. As orphans, they shared a bed and gave each other alcohol rubs. Sleeping together might have been for practical reasons, but in the church, it isn't allowed.
Mungiu also shows a world of poverty--without electricity. The church, New Hill, is impoverished and has yet to be consecrated. So cold are the rooms indoors that you can see the white puffs of hot air expelled from the mouths of the nuns as they talk. There is no running water. Voichita's duty is to get the water from the well. You'd think Germany would seem like paradise compared to this primitive farm that wants to become a church with its barren grounds. Yet Voichita is safer here than she was in the past when she was forced to allow a man take all kinds of photos of her.
The nuns called the priest Papa (Valeriu Andriuta) and the senior nun Mama (Dana Tapalaga) and if they have little, they at least have each other and a mission that is ordained for them and a fearful worldview that keeps them in place. Papa tells his flock, "For the true believer, even entering a non-Orthodox church is a sin." The world is full of sin and the devil and his temptations everywhere.
You might ask where is Christ's love? When Alina asks Voichita has friends in this church, she replies, "I don't have close friends here. We help each other."
That sounds fine and dandy until Voichita explains her relationship with Alina to another nun saying, "She protected me." The other nun inquires "What did she want in exchange?" In a place where poverty is the norm, every human transaction is a trade off.
Alina is 24 and that's an age when certain things start emerging. Perhaps she has shown signs of her problem before, but who would have noticed? When her behavior forces the nuns to take her to a hospital, she's restrained. Eventually, the doctor instructs the nuns to take her back and keep her calm but while he prescribes two medications for mental illness, he never mentions his diagnosis. Instead he discusses the cost. One is expensive, but he's sure they'll manage somehow. Just as he seems to be sure they'll be able to manage Alina.
The first drug, Zyprexa, is for schizophrenia and bipolar treatment. Side effects include restlessness, apnea, irritability and even heart attack. The second drug is Levomepromazine which is also also used for schizophrenia and manic phases of bipolar disorder.
The doctor doesn't directly address Alina's problems and never mentions mental illness, leaving the nuns ill-prepared for what happens. They restrain Alina (after all, that's what the nurses and doctors at the hospital did), but also believe that she must have committed some pretty heavy sins. Caught between the god-fearing nuns and a priest who believes nearly everything is a sin and a callous medical organization that like the church might also have some economic bottom-line concerns, Alina is without an advocate who can explain or understand her mental problems.
Voichita's church could easily be mistaken for a life in another time and you imagine that in the past this was how the mentally ill might have been treated--with deadly treatments by well-meaning exorcists. Perhaps not in the too distant past, the mentally ill were considered witches. The poverty of Romania might be an excuse, but do we in America have a better answer? Studies about homelessness in America estimate that about 25 percent of the homeless have a serious mental illness.
The 2012 romantic comedy, "Silver Linings Playbook" tackled the issue of bipolar disorder and OCD. The main character, Pat (Bradley Cooper), has his family to fall back on. Evidence of the disorder in other family members shows that the problem may have been undiagnosed. Even with a loving family and friends, dealing with the mental illness isn't easy as "Silver Linings Playbook" reveals with good humor and a bit more optimism than most families have.
"Silver Linings Playbook" puts faith in oneself as being important as family. In "Beyond the Hills," faith could be seen as the anchor that keeps Romania in the superstitious past, but would Voichita need her church and religious family if she had other avenues of economic hope, if she felt safe in the outside world of Romania?
Would the hospital have cared more if she was a man? That's not the feeling I got. The doctor seemed callous but not necessarily sexist.
"Beyond the Hills" is an unflinching look at poverty and mental illness, using a true event in a non-exploitive way. In Romanian with English subtitles at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 beginning 15 March 2013.