Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Bearing Witness: The Sight of a Sacrifice in Cristian Mungiu's beyond the Hills

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Bearing Witness: The Sight of a Sacrifice in Cristian Mungiu's beyond the Hills

Article excerpt

In June 2005, an exorcism performed at a convent in the north-east of Romania resulted in the death of a twenty-three year-old nun, Maricica Irina Cornici.1 This particular incident formed the basis of a number of novels by the former BBC World Service Bucharest Bureau Chief, Tatiana Niculescu Bran, whose work was subsequently adapted by the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. In Beyond the Hills (Dupá dealuri, 2012), a work that is yet to receive the attention of film scholars, Mungiu dramatizes the rituals of the exorcism, exposing the structural violence motivating its perpetrators. An uneasy relationship between sight and culpability is implicit in the film's cinematographic logic throughout, and is clearly articulated in the closing scenes, when a police inspector issues a final call for witnesses. Indeed, the exorcism of Comici's fictive counterpart, Alina (Cristina Flutur), summons a number of historical specters for a country emerging from the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu's communist regime. In Beyond the Hills, Mungiu negotiates the lingering effects of political and spiritual control on contemporary Romania, focusing on the experience of a community at a small Orthodox church, which exists in largely isolated and archaic conditions.

One of the nuns at the church, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), Alina's childhood friend and former lover, invites Alina to stay with her so that she might participate in a new life of devotion and prayer. However, Alina's attempts to resurrect their romantic relationship, and to persuade Voichita to return with her to Germany, test the heterosexual and patriarchal norms of the religious order, and of conservative Romania more broadly. Arriving as a guest, Alina quickly becomes an intruder, undermining the community's fixed social structures by refusing to cooperate with the nuns' highly disciplined way of life, and their attempts to regulate her desires. A series of strange incidents occur, and Alina becomes increasingly unstable, culminating in a breakdown that the others interpret as satanic possession. On one level, the relationship between Alina and her hosts is framed as a tense encounter between Orthodox religion and its secular opposite, finally resulting in a crime justified by its perpetrators as a spiritual cure. Yet this film is also full of subtle collusions and contradictions, and it raises the question of guilt from which the spectators are not exempt.

In this article, I query the characterization of Alina's exorcism as a form of religious remedy and posit it more specifically as an act of sacrifice. In particular, I suggest that certain elements of the sacrifice-the role of the spectators described by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1913), and René Girard's theory of a "scapegoat mechanism"-are enacted through the formal qualities of Oleg Mutu's cinematography, placing an emphasis on the act of viewing.2 In the context of the exorcism/sacrifice, this mere "seeing" becomes an act implicated in issues of culpability, turning the experience of spectatorship, both within and beyond the diegesis, into that of bearing witness. I lodge my discussion in a close analysis of gendered power and desire in Beyond the Hills, showing how Mungiu composes a visual rhetoric of exclusion and asymmetry that defines the experience of witnessing the sacrifice. Indeed, this representation of witnessing is couched in ancient spiritual and ritualistic traditions that go beyond the specifics of religious denomination, and those of cinematic convention.

Sacrifice and Cinema

In the wake of the publication of The Golden Bough (1890), J.G. Frazer's pioneering study of magic and religion, attempts have been made to explain the purpose of sacrifice by a host of theorists including Freud, Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy and Georges Bataille.3 For Freud, sacrificial rites offer an outlet for violence, which he reads in psychoanalytic terms in Totem and Taboo as patricidal, and as satisfying a "creative sense of guilt [that] still persists among us" by providing an opportunity for atonement. …

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