Director: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur
UK Release date: 15 March 2013
Certificate: 12A (150 mins)
Abandoned in the local orphanage in Romania, Alina and Voichita were friends and allies (and probably lovers), finding in each other a compassion absent in the evil with which they were surrounded. At eighteen, Alina sought employment in the west, but could not live without Voichita, and returned for her. Voichita, however, had joined a small Romanian Orthodox religious community setting up a new abbey.
I have stayed in a number of religious houses in my time, and this one bears no similarities to any I have seen the insides of. The half-completed buildings are entirely traditional and there is no electricity: when Mr Valerica, their lay supporter and link with the outside world, arrives in his raggedy red car, there is a brief intrusion of the contemporary, just as incongruous as continuity not noticing some of the extras in Marie Antoinette were wearing trainers.
It is also presented as a startlingly patriarchal community: the priest is in charge, the nuns do all the work. And they are shown doing good work – supporting the orphanage, giving away all their spare cash, feeding the local elderly. And yet, and yet, and yet...
Something is not quite right. This element of doubt creeps in from the very start: the second sequence ends with the two central protagonists reaching the top of that hill in the title, coming over the brow and arriving at the edge of the monastery compound. As they approach the gates, the camera lingers on a hand-painted sign: it’s the sort of thing that you see banged into the garden of that slightly odd family on the estate, the sort of sign that might threaten, or accuse. My Romanian is a bit ropey these days, and the subtitles weren’t entirely clear on this particular detail, but the sentiment is clear: ‘this is Holy Ground’, and stay away if you don’t meet the requirements of holiness.
There are quite a few of these demands to be holy. At one point, motivated by her compulsion to stay with Voichita, Alina takes confession, something that appears to have been a traumatic experience. As part of her penance, she works through a list of 464 sins, giving up in near despair at around no.18: it’s clear that she has committed all of them. Since the list begins with sins of doubt in Divine mercy, she is to be forgiven, given the bleakness of their lives and the lack of compassion in evidence.
Alina’s mental health deteriorates, and eventually it is decided to attempt an exorcism. In this, she is tied to an improvised stretcher, with her arms out and lashed down, in a parody of crucifixion to which the religious are blind: they need a lay arrival to point it out to them. Their obsession with regulation and rules leads them to inflict a shocking violence against the mad, inconveniently gay, person who doesn’t fit in, and they are quite unable to see the reality of their actions.
That Alina’s illness is of her psyche is significant, because it – along with the subtext of her sexuality and her femininity – is shameful. In her madness, she is hidden away, the community desperate that the growing number of lay visitors do not see or hear her. What might appear at first to be a despairing film about the absence of God in the world is more specifically about the absence of God in the lives of these Romanians – professing a religion, but not living it: it is the same point Jesus made to the Pharisees.
Alina’s presence in the film, with her deteriorating mental health, seems to pose a number of questions. One might be, ‘why don’t you two just run away?’ Another is rooted in theodicy: ‘why are the sick with us?’ That question, Jesus said, was easy to answer: they are here so that we may care for them. Director Cristian Mungiu seems to be making the same point, offering a critique of a humanity that seems unable to respond to others’ pain with simple compassion, preferring propriety and a God of their own invention. The religious in this film are so bound by rules and stricken with the fear of being shamefully caught with a mad person in their midst, that they are unable to respond with the radical power of love. Secular love, in the form of state medicine, is even less in evidence: doctors are soulless, seeking only to avoid work or allocate blame.
The camera work is striking. Building on the ideas of legendary Russian film maker Andrei Tarkovsky, the film is made up entirely of single-take, real-time shots, with very little editing. This demands carefully composed sequences, and well-considered compositions: the result is evocative and engrossing, with the interior shots around the monastery kitchen table shining like seventeenth century still-lifes. Other images are starkly memorable in their simplicity and the poetry of their selection: a single lamp swinging through the darkness of the compound, a long tracking shot on the back of Voichita’s head as she pushes her way against the tide at a railway station.
I asked two people in the cinema what they though of the film. One (a grumpy type) replied, ‘it’s got to be a good film for me to stay to the end’. The other explained that he had now seen it twice, and it got better each time: complex, absorbing, subtle and memorable film-making – this is a director to keep an eye on.
 Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/FILM_20080118_1.htm) was the first film reviewed by this journal.