Both Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux and Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills examine the constraints imposed by social custom, as well as its seductions.
Post Tenebras Lux ponders the idiocy of both urban and rural life. The film opens in the middle of a swampy field, where a little girl (director Carlos Reygadas' daughter Rut) describes aloud the horses, cows, and dogs she sees, as her day speeds to a close. By the end of the long scene, she is standing almost in complete darkness encircled by growling dogs who are larger than her. Shot in 35mm through a wide lens with blurred edges, this haunting sequence introduces a child's view of the menace indicated by the natural world.
In the next scene, that menace is more fully embodied, as an emaciated, graceful, reddish and horned creature walks through a country house carrying a toolbox. Everyone is asleep, except for a little boy (Reygadas' son Eleazar), who alone meets the eye of the CGIed intruder. Here again, the frame's blurred edges suggest a dream or a child's fantasy. The two scenes pose questions. Did the girl survive her night with the dogs? Why the toolbox? But what first seems a device to convey a mood or perspective ends up meaning very little in particular. The screen's edges stay blurred indefinitely, in various point of view images, as well as in general expository shots, and between urban and rural settings.
Screening in Cannes' Camera d'Or section, this "autobiographical film" (so described by Reygadas at his Cannes press conference) focuses on the travails of a family. Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), move with their kids from the city to the Mexican countryside, where their ideas clash with local customs. In the city, they discuss the merits of Russian literature (Chekhov is better than Tolstoy) and visit a swingers' club with sorry-looking naked people sitting around. In the country, Juan acquires a habit of beating dogs. More dire events follow, including a brutal suicide and a rain of blood. But Reygadas wastes these stunning visuals and campy action sequences in the telling of a pretentious and obvious tale.
Also screening in Camera d'Or, Cristian Mungiu's Dupa dealuri (Beyond the Hills) is based on a true story that also inspired two nonfiction books. Alina (Cristina Flutur) comes from Germany to a small-town Romanian Orthodox convent to visit Voichita (journalist turned actress Cosmina Stratan). Alina hopes to convince Voichita, her only friend, to return with her to Germany. But Voichita is afraid to leave her sheltered world, even though she leads a hard life of labor and prayer in tiny drab rooms with no electricity and running water. The girls grew up together in an orphanage, as roommates and likely lovers: Voichita says at one point, "I love you, but not as before." Now she is pledged to love only God.
That doesn’t mean their troubles are past, however. Mother Superior (Dana Tapalagă) and other nuns see the devil's hand in Voichita's and Alina's mutual devotion. The head priest (Valeriu Andriuță) wants Alina gone. But Alina refuses to accept this and lashes out at the priest and the nuns with invective and violence.
As usual, narrative moves slowly in a Mingiu film, showing how multiple flawed decisions lead to an inevitable tragedy. After the first violent outburst, Alina is taken to the hospital, where psychologists agree that she is ill but refuse to take her. Alina's former foster family have already taken in another girl, so an attempt to send her there fails as well. Alina keeps coming back to the convent, hoping to convince Voichita to choose the secular world, while Voichita desires that Alina curb her bad temper and accept God.
Gradually, a soft-spoken priest demands complete confession from Alina (providing her with a book of 464 official sins for her reference), then decides that she is possessed by the devil and orders a "service" -- an exorcism. It is here that Voichita fails Alina most utterly. Even seeing her tortured for several days and hearing her screams, Voichita is unable to break with the church and help her friend. Still, Beyond the Hills is not so much statement against faith, but against the church as an instrument of social control.