Romanian director Cristian Mungiu is starting to build a great track record at the Cannes festival. Already a Palme d’Or winner for his sophomore effort, the 2007 abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, on the closing Sunday of this year’s festival he nabbed two more prizes (three, if you’re pedantic), taking home the award for Best Screenplay and a shared Best Actress honor for his leading ladies, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur. No mean feat, given that the film is considerably less accessible than his previous outing, and, at 137 minutes, quite long. To Mungiu’s credit, he makes the length feel like less of an issue the further the film progresses, slowly building tension toward a dramatic finale.
In the beginning we meet Voichita (Stratan) and Alina (Flutur) at a train station. The two young women have been childhood friends since growing up together in an orphanage, though it is suggested they were also lovers. Alina is living in Germany, but has some problems with paperwork, and she has come home so that Voichita can help her with it. But she also hopes to lure her friend away from the convent Voichita joined after leaving the orphanage. Once at the convent, Alina starts to show erratic behavior, challenging the convent’s small community under the rule of an authoritarian priest (Valeriu Andriuta). This puts Voichita in a tough spot, as she has to manoeuvre between her best friend and her convictions. At first it seems as if Alina is consciously rebelling against the pious life at the convent in an effort to force Voichita to go away with her, but as her behavior deteriorates, and neither the hospital nor her former foster parents want to take her in, the convent’s inhabitants become certain that she is possessed by evil, and they prepare an exorcism.
Mungiu tells this story, which is based on a real-life incident in a Romanian convent in 2005, in a nuanced and non-judgemental, if sternly pessimistic way. Even as the film is critical of the blindness of religion, it is equally critical of the secular world outside, as neither the hospital nor Alina’s foster family is eager to help the young girl. The hospital diagnoses Alina with paranoid schizophrenia, but still quickly shoves her back into the care of the convent, showing Mungiu’s cynical view of the state agencies in his country. Alina’s foster family has taken in a new girl since she left, and they seem less than pleased when she shows up on their doorstep, with hints that they have financially bettered themselves at her cost. She keeps ending up in the convent, where the well-meaning community completely misjudges her behavior based on their own beliefs. Their actions may seem grounded in the naive, but they believe what they are doing is the right thing. Alina is trapped in a lose-lose situation: the people who could help her are unwilling, and the people who do help her are far from capable. She has only her friend to count on, but Voichita is torn between her love of God and her love for Alina, and increasingly desperate to find a solution where she can have it both ways, even when it becomes clear that is not going to happen, as the situation rapidly goes downhill (no pun intended).
Mungiu’s static and well-composed shots, along with the dreary surroundings of the Romanian countryside, make this a tough film to sit through, yet all the while heightening the sense of isolation and dread for these two young women. Slow takes make one feel the film’s length early on, but as Alina’s situation spirals out of control the viewer is drawn into the film more and more. Mungiu slowly turns the screws, and the comparison to Lars von Trier that several other reviewers have made is apt, particularly to the Danish director’s latest two works. The film pairs the horror of Antichrist with the difficult relationship between two women (in that case sisters) of Melancholia. The end result is better than both those films, not in the least because of two strong lead performances by Stratan and Flutur, who stunningly make their debuts here (Mungiu also got a great performance out of Anamaria Marinca in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, her first feature film at the time, so it seems he has a knack for working with young actresses). Especially Flutur gets to display a whole range of emotions as an unsympathetic victim, and she is more than up for it.
Under the guise of a horror-drama Mungiu has crafted a film that deals with themes of religion, abandonment, and the underprivileged position of women. It is no coincidence that his subject is again young women who are left to their own devices, even if there are three decades between the two films. They were an unnoticed and uncared-for generation back then, and it seems that the generation just now coming out of the orphanages that are the legacy of Ceausescu will be even more forgotten. In some ways, this is their film, a story about young women who have nothing and are given nothing, because society does not want to deal with them. Romanian cinema is still working out the demons of its former dictator, very much like the country itself.