By Armond White
In God is the Bigger Elvis, about former movie actress Dolores Hart who gave up her Hollywood career opposite such glamorous stars as Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, Stephen Boyd and is now Mother Prioress at the Regina Laudis Benedictine abbey in Bethleham, Conn., director Rebecca Cammisa touches upon faith, devotion and love. The essence of Hart’s biography–her struggle to find peace and meaning–is clear enough to make the half-hour documentary powerfully moving. It was just the affirmation I needed to see after the insufferable Beyond the Hills.
For Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, politics is the bigger Elvis. He sets Beyond the Hills at a remote convent where an Orthodox priest and nuns subject a violent but inarticulate girl to an exorcism. Beyond the Hills ignores the possibility of spiritual life to make a drama about the repression of female rights. It’s the same propagandistic game as in Mungiu’s wildly over-celebrated abortion film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. This time his two new heroines, mousey Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and butch Alina (Cristina Flutur), are once again victims of patriarchy–here represented by the cruel Orthodox church. Sexual politics and obvious, mundane sense of melodrama are the only dogma Mungiu believes in.
It takes Mungiu two and a half hours to lay out his anti-religious harangue using banal dailiness, mistaking a plodding narrative for “realism.” Beyond the Hills is based on “the non-fiction novels” of Tatiana Niculescu who claims to have documented an instance of religious torture and Mungiu, a former journalist, displays the typical liberal hack’s credulousness. (The girls are lesbians subjected to an extreme form of aversion therapy.) But biased gullibility isn’t artistry. Voichita and Alina may be the screen’s most infuriating bimbos since 4,3,2. It takes about four months, three weeks and two days of being tied down, scrubbed raw and prayed over before Alina finally says “Leave me alone!” Voichita stands by helpless.
Mungiu neglects to give the girls minds. Voichita’s witlessness is the exact opposite of Dolores Hart’s searching or the various stories of nuns renouncing worldliness in God is the Bigger Elvis. (One even comments on their “spousal commitment with Jesus” and the “physical union” experienced in singing devotionals–an enlightening paradox to their vows of celibacy.) It’s extraordinary to see Hart’s Hollywood fiance
Don Robinson continue his devotion after 47 years through annual visits to the abbey. This display of love is deeper and more moving than most movies ever show; such love and devotion are beyond Mungiu’s simplistic nihilism. Yet, Mungiu’s sneaky, inarticulate lovers canoodle and massage with little personal loyalty.
To tell from advance reviews and Cannes Film Festival prizes, liberals like such cipher heroines (as in Zero Dark Thirty) because they don’t examine their own prejudices. Voichita and Alina recall Of Mice and Men‘s cynic and retard George and Lenny living in a Kafkaesque world that justifies liberal paranoia. That explains the ludicrous plot of 4,3,2 where two Romanian girls not only have trouble obtaining an abortion but fuck the abortionist in the process–complicity that p.c. American critics sentimentalized and politicized as “rape.”
In Mungiu’s only honest work, Tales of the Golden Age, his omnibus of short stories depicted Ceaucescu-era Romania as a heartless, vicious society of mutually abusive citizens; it was pretty convincing. Now he’s back to polarizing. Though set in Romania, Beyond the Hills actually takes place in the post-moral universe (the title refers to what our mainstream media calls fly-over country).
Mungiu’s slack narrative only sharpens when the priests, Mother Superior and nuns are upbraided by a disrespectful doctor (science vs. belief) and then are herded into a wagon by a threatening, condemnatory police captain and subjected to a repetitious inquest. An imaginative, challenging filmmaker would have accepted Voitcha’s religious conversion as in God is the Bigger Elvis or Bruno Dumont’s Hadwjch, testing our faith and politics. Mungiu’s tactics depend on shakey cam, screaming hysterics and support by a nihilistic film culture. That’s what turns propaganda into a cause celebre.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair
By Armond White