There’s a moment in several of Cristian Mungiu’s movies where the camera hangs on a woman’s face, stunned and watchful in the midst of tumult. In the Romanian director’s 2007 masterpiece “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” the scene was a dinner party at which the conversation boiled around the still figure of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) thinking of her friend undergoing an illegal abortion in another party of the city.
In the final scenes of Mungiu’s latest film, “Beyond the Hills,” the face belongs to a young nun named Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). She has just witnessed the dire results of an attempted exorcism, the police have arrived, and her God has suddenly vanished from the face of the earth.
The film (not to be confused with “The Place Beyond the Pines,” also opening Friday in the Boston area) has all the hallmarks of the Romanian New Wave: scrupulous realism, long camera movements, a lack of soundtrack music, and drama that slowly builds to an unbearable pitch. It’s a deceptively impersonal style, because “Beyond the Hills” seethes with astonishment and rage at a broken society marooned between the 21st century and the 16th.
The story is based on actual events, subsequently novelized by Romanian journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran and adapted for film by Mungiu. It opens with a reunion between Voichita and Alina (Cristina Flutur), childhood friends in a state orphanage. While there were clearly sexual aspects to their relationship, the bond is mostly emotional and very deep — two girls clinging to each other in a brutal universe. While Voichita has found peace in the patriarchal order of a rural Orthodox abbey, Alina has been out in the world, and it has damaged her beyond measure. She arrives at the station grasping for the one person who sees her, knows her, and loves her.
Needless to say, she’s confused by Voichita’s new love for Jesus Christ; to the increasingly distraught Alina, the other nuns, and the sternly moralistic head priest (Valeriu Andriuta) — all the sisters call him “Papa” — are rivals for her friend’s affections. She urges Voichita to run away with her, and when that doesn’t work, she hovers around the half-finished abbey, alternately accepting God and Papa and railing against them. A medical professional might guess Alina was in the throes of schizophrenia. Everyone here assumes she’s possessed by a demon.
“Beyond the Hills” could make easy villains of the priest and his flock, but Mungiu understands that in a society this prostrate, everyone is at least partially blind. Demonic possession is the only way the sisters can understand Alina’s outbursts and heresies, and no one in the local hospital or in town is willing to take responsibility. Only late in the film does a doctor (Cerasela Iosifescu) take a caustic stand against any belief system that would do what it does here.
Mungiu is a great filmmaker whose talent is disguised in ordinary moments. The soundtrack is backgrounded by the constant barking of distant dogs, a subconscious irritant that keeps everyone on edge, both on-screen and in the audience. There are shots worthy of an old master painting — candlelit groupings of nuns around the stricken Alina, an image of them carrying her through the snow on a makeshift cross — that never seem mere showing off. Occasionally a cellphone will appear, or an airplane contrail in the sky, and we’re reminded that this is the modern world, or what we like to think is modern. (The final shots bring the two eras together with an ease that takes one’s breath away.)
“Beyond the Hills” lacks the ferocious concentration of “4 Months,” a drama that examines every single aspect of the abortion issue in a single evening. The symbolism flirts with heavy-handedness, as does the story line: We know what’s going to happen to Alina and are powerless to stop it. Yet the two central performances glow in the memory long after the lights come up: one woman in danger of becoming a martyr to madness and men’s faith, the other the film’s awakening conscience. By the final scenes, Voichita seems almost holy in her awareness and acceptance of her own complicity. These are the people Mungiu truly values: the friends who once were blind and now can see.