Of all the criticisms leveled against Christian religion, the aesthetic critique is the most potentially compelling. Not convincing (God forbid), but worthy of consideration. David Bentley Hart has explained how Nietzsche's assault on Christianity was fundamentally aesthetic in nature, and for that reason operated on a deeper plane than the mere logician or empiricist can reach, and can even function as a sort of wake-up call for complacent or compromised Christians. It's somewhat counterintuitive given the popular ideas that hold sway in our culture, but art (if it is genuine art) is constrained by reality in a way that what we typically call 'reason' is not. If the artist can't strike that deep existential chord and 'ring true', then he has no power; but if he can, he does. It follows that artistic depictions of Christian religion, whether supporting or detracting from it, hold a unique potential for exploring the topic.
For this reason I'm particularly interested in religious cinema, whether favorable or critical, and as an Orthodox Christian, especially films that focus on Orthodoxy. The 2012 Romanian film Beyond the Hills fits that bill.
Set in a monastery on the outskirts of a local town in contemporary Romania and based on true events, the film centers on the relationship between one of the nuns at the monastery (Voichita) and an intimate friend (Alina) who comes to visit her. The girls grew up in an orphanage together and had forged a deep bond (which possibly became a sexual relationship as they got older), but at some point Voichita went to the monastery to repent and begin a new life, and Alina has come to retrieve her.
When Alina arrives we get some early signs that the monastery might be trouble (as judged by modern, liberal standards). The sign outside the gate reads "This is the house of God, forbidden to those of other religions; believe and do not doubt." At dinner her first night there, the abbot goes on a small diatribe about the apostasy of the West, how it has lost the faith and is awash in immorality as a result, while the Orthodox Church alone has kept the true faith. This is supposed to alert you to the abbot's extremism, rather than his perspicacity.
Alina quickly realizes that her beloved Voichita is a changed woman, that she has devoted her life to God and life at the monastery, and no longer loves Alina as she once did (though she still cares for her). Her fatal attraction sets off a series of fits of bitter jealousy with her lashing out and causing a scene. Whether merely cursing nuns out of spite, accusing the abbot of the monastery of sexual impropriety with the nuns (for no reason), or physically attacking everyone around her, her response contains both the fury of the unrequited love of a lesbian lover and the desperation of a child who is losing someone akin to a substitute mother figure, despite their similarity in age.
The monastery is unequipped to handle Alina's erratic behavior and so they take her to the hospital, where the head doctor is a friend of the abbot and a believer himself. While she's there the bed next to her is occupied by a woman who looks like she has been in a bad car wreck: two broken legs, a neck brace, and a scratched up face. But no, it wasn't a car wreck: she jumped out of a building when she learned she was pregnant—and as we all know, pregnancy in a religious country regularly causes suicidal despair. None too subtle, and a sort of callback to director Christian Mungiu's 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days about a woman trying to procure an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania.
At any rate, the doctor's diagnosis of Alina is not too specific, though she is prescribed rest, medication, and to read the psalms. She can't stay at the hospital long because they don't have room for her so she is soon back at the monastery.
Alina continues to be upset by the way religious life at the monastery has claimed Voichita's devotion. She is upset that Voichita gets up and reads the psalms in the middle of the night without her; as she is led through preparing for confession by the nuns, it is clear she only goes along with it as a condition for being near Voichita; as Voichita explains the necessity of love for God over love for her, Alina refuses to listen—all she wants is her. Taking a page from the P**** Riot handbook, she even stages a comical feminist protest of the rule against women partaking in sacraments when on their period, entering a church service in loud defiance while on her own, declaring "God is for everyone, not just you!" A woman singularly uninterested in God suddenly wants to democratize Him.
When Voichita is telling Alina of the need to ascetically detach one's self from all worldly affections, even other people, in order to draw nearer to God—a fundamental Christian truth—Alina asks her why she "can't talk like a normal person anymore." Normal people, presumably, like herself who are so hopelessly dependent on carnal, earthly desires, that they have no time for God. The saddest thing about the scene is that you're actually supposed to agree with Alina's protest, and find the profound truth spoken by Voichita to be "abnormal" in a negative sense.
Is the audience supposed to feel sympathy for this dour, miserable, obsessive, co-dependent lesbian wretch, so intent on causing mischief and disrupting the peaceful life of a monastery, while attempting to corrupt her purehearted friend? I can't imagine that it is—pity is the most charitable emotion can be summoned for her. But given the unfolding of events in the narrative, it does seem the director intends her to be somewhat sympathetic.
And this is where the film either goes awry or is admirably restrained, depending on your take. If Alina's character is understood as a deeply troubled lovesick narcissist who neither the medical nor religious institutions know exactly what to do with, then the conclusion of the film (which will be discussed soon and could be considered a spoiler) can be read as a sort of sober, melancholy meditation on individuals who fall through the cracks of normal society. In traditional Christian countries, monasteries are often the last potential place of refuge for some of these sorts of people. If on the other hand—and this is closer to what I think is intended—she represents the normal intuitions of the non-religious, modern world, and her troubles at the monastery are seen as an indictment, not of her and her teenage puppylove obsession and narcissism, but of the monastery and serious religious life itself, then the film amounts to a rather unhinged anti-Christian screed.
That the latter is closer to what is being conveyed becomes clear when Alina begins freaking out again, cursing and physically assaulting those around her, and the nuns are forced to restrain her, as they had seen the people at the hospital do to her. They initially try to tie her to a single long board but can't keep her arms at her side, so they attach a perpendicular board that they can tie her arms to. If the crucifixion symbolism is a bit over-the-top for your taste, it doesn't end there. At their wits end, they pray a special prayer service for deliverance from evil over her while she's restrained—a laudable endeavor, but incomprehensible to the modern world as anything but superstition. They go on keeping her restrained for a full day or more before she finally drops dead, the full sacrifice completed.
Why didn't they call the cops when she was getting violent and out of control? Voichita's affection for the girl was such that they felt she was their responsibility, especially since the psych ward and hospital couldn't help. They discuss kicking her out and decide that would be too cruel, but going to such lengths of physical restraint for long periods of time without calling the police strains credulity. It might be what happened in real life, I don't know, but Mungiu said in an interview with the Criterion Collection that the girl who died in the incident was sick and that he didn't see her as being the same as the character in the story he was trying to tell. Whatever the case, if they had simply contacted the police the panegyric against Christian religion for its ineffectual supernaturalism wouldn't be nearly as potent.
The film brings to mind the Russian film Leviathan, which also critiques religion in a post-Communist Orthodox country, and features a similarly scathing climax. A charitable read of Leviathan is that it doesn't criticize religion so much as corruption in the clergy (and in Russia itself), and a similarly charitable read of Beyond the Hills is that it's not against religion per se but fanaticism.
The problem with this is that the life of the monastery as portrayed is that of a normal Orthodox monastery. At one point when the nuns at the monastery start freaking out about signs, believing they had seen a black cross in a log that was a bad omen, the abbot tells them to knock it off. This is indicative of a sober leader, rightly suspicious of such things, not the head of a fever swamp of hysteria. While the rest of what might seem 'extreme' to the modern eye—keeping vigil reading the Psalms through the night, a rigorous practice of confession, fasting, exorcisms, the presence of a miracle-working icon, believing God and Satan are both real and active in the world—are all standard aspects of the traditional Orthodox Christian life, especially at a monastery. Which is not to deny that superstitions and delusions ever exist in religious contexts, of course they do, but given that the life of the monastery isn't especially fanatical or otherwise extraordinary, and combined with the climactic events leading to the death of a troubled girl on a makeshift cross, it's impossible to read the film as anything other than a visceral attack on Orthodoxy itself.
Which is unfortunate because the subject matter of the churches emerging from Communist captivity and their resurgence, or their struggles, is one that is ripe for artistic investigation from various angles. And the technical production of this film was of high quality—the delicately powerful performance of Cosmina Stratan who plays Voichita is especially noteworthy—such that it could have served that function, were it not for the deranged liberal antipathy toward traditional Christian religion propelling it.
Another illuminating comparison—or really contrast—is with the 2006 Russian film Ostrov or The Island. It also depicts some dramatic and wild events that occur at a monastery (in this case, due to the presence of a holy fool, rather than a fool simpliciter), and its climax also centers on a demon-haunted young girl brought to the monastery for help. Only here it is made clear that demons are real and prayer to the true God (especially that of a holy person) is effectual. If you're insistent, as Alina was, on closing yourself off to the reality and power of God in his Church, while being deeply devoted to your love of the world, then all that remains are floundering humans and their institutions, which are quite likely to fail you. The secular, liberal myth that man is the measure of all things has an aesthetic dimension to it—and it isn't pretty.