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At rep cinemas this week: an award-winning exorcism drama courtesy of the Romanian New Wave, Cinéfranco’s opening-night selection, and Steven Soderbergh’s early-retirement film.
Beyond the Hills
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
As much a diagnostic report as it was a movie, Cristian Mungiu’s bracing debut, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, took its scalpel to Ceaușescu-era Romania, treating a young woman’s quest to secure her friend an illegal abortion like a thriller set in a nation of paranoid schizophrenics. Based on a pair of non-fiction bestsellers about a real-life exorcism case in 2005, Mungiu’s long-awaited followup, Beyond the Hills, is, if nothing else, a fine companion piece. It brings the earlier film’s straightforward two-hander structure and clinical detachment to bear on contemporary Romanian religious superstitions.
Though Beyond the Hills is ostensibly less of a period piece than its ’80s-set predecessor, the Moldavian monastery in which Mungiu’s new narrative unfolds seems even more out-of-time than Ceaușescu’s Romania. The problems start when junior nun Voichiţa (Cosmina Stratan) welcomes her childhood friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) for a long overdue visit. The women have a troubled history, having survived sexual abuse at the orphanage where they were raised. It’s suggested that they developed a fleeting romantic relationship, which was dashed when Voichiţa pledged herself to God. Depressed by her soulmate’s commitment to a faith she can’t share, Alina lashes out in fits of aggression, which strike the presiding priest (Valeriu Andriuţă) and the other sisters as signs of demonic possession. They care for her as their scrambled beliefs dictate they must, by walking her through self-damning rituals designed to purge her of her material attachments.
Mungiu is a major talent, but the airlessness of his filmmaking can sometimes make him seem like his least sympathetic character, the heavy-handed priest everyone but Alina refers to as “Papa.” There’s a grim inevitability to Alina’s push-pull relationship with her old friend, which quashes the suspense.
So deliberate are all of Mungiu’s choices that even a seemingly throwaway image, of a tub of dying fish dropped into a sink, brims with meaning. But the suffocating air that makes the film so difficult to watch is also what makes it a singular work of cultural criticism. Mungiu is after something more universal than the harsh underbelly of Eastern European faith. He’s interested in the violent condescension that sometimes comes bundled with our care for those weaker than us. A pedantic crime like that might just call for pedantic filmmaking. Heavy-handed or not, Beyond the Hills is tough to shake.
Directed by Luc Picard
The Royal (608 College Street)
When the French New Wave launched its opening salvo with 1960’s Breathless, it was railing against a cinema of politeness, embodied by the costume dramas and literary adaptations then flooding the marketplace. We tend to think of Jean-Luc Godard’s ilk as revolutionaries now, so it’s easy to forget that the type of movies they defined their work against never really went away so much as they went out of fashion for a while. Luc Picard’s Ésimésac is a good example of that genre’s endurance—a Quebecois period fable aimed squarely at audiences who appreciate movies about nice people doing moral things in picturesque surroundings.
An overly literary opening voiceover puts a tentative foot in the realm of magical realism, introducing the titular character (Nicola-Frank Vachon) as a good-natured oaf who looks three decades older than his actual age—two years—because his mother carried him longer than the usual 9 months. Stalling the natural rhythms of pregnancy and childbirth seems to be the only method the poor villagers of Saint-Élie-de-Caxton have of fighting starvation, but Ésimésac has a plan: he pushes for a community garden project. Stoked as most of his neighbours are, Ésimésac finds opposition in Ripoel (Gildor Roy), a mustachioed libertarian blacksmith who could charitably be described as French Canada’s answer to Parks and Recreation‘s Ron Swanson. Ripoel isn’t a bad guy, but he’s convinced the garden doesn’t have much of a future next to the industrial force of the railway that’s about to come through the village, whether its inhabitants are ready for it or not.
It’s not really clear why Ésimésac is the first villager to suggest cultivating the land by collective will, but no matter: we grant fables their dreamy logic, provided they have something to say. What’s less excusable is the flatness of characters like Ripoel’s daughter, who exists only to reinforce stereotypes about nice maids who honour their fathers, and to tread carefully between the dueling paths of the film’s two leading men. This is prosaic storytelling, but the high production values and good intentions will be enough for some, even if the postcard prettiness would give Godard a rash.
Ésimésac is the opening night selection of Cinéfranco, a festival devoted to French-language cinema.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
If Steven Soderbergh’s insistence that Side Effects will be his last theatrical release turns out to be true, he’ll have mustered an impressive filmography by the time he takes his early retirement. His movies make an oddly diverse group, from the heady science fiction of his Solaris remake to the micro-budgeted Bubble, through to his recent spate of experimental star vehicles (for MMA fighter Gina Carano in Haywire, and former adult film star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, to name just two). As last films go, Side Effects is on the slight side, but it’s very much in keeping with the freewheeling spirit that’s defined Soderbergh’s work since he burst onto the world stage at Cannes in 1989.
The film starts as a melodrama about mental illness, then changes without warning into both a courtroom procedural and a trashy sex thriller in the vein of Fatal Attraction. The story, inasmuch as it can be described without spoilers, centres on Emily (Rooney Mara), a young woman with a mood disorder that is triggered for the first time in years when her financier husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after time spent there for insider trading. Her intense depression takes her to a new psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who is all too happy to ply with her a profoundly mind-altering new drug pitched to him by a motley crew of pharmaceutical lobbyists that includes Emily’s former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Zeta-Jones’s hammy demeanor in her early scenes tips us off to some of the more surprising tonal mutations Soderbergh has in store for us later on. Some of these are more fruitful than others. In particular, one late plot turn is simultaneously homophobic, misogynistic, and callous toward those suffering from mental health issues—an unholy trifecta. Still, one does not go to a thriller for moral instruction, and Side Effects works perfectly well as an efficient delivery system for Soderbergh’s career obsession with playing at the crossroads between different genres. He’s clearly having a good time on this victory lap, and his fun is contagious.