Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Beyond the Hills (Dir. Cristian Mungiu, 2012) Damnant quod non intellegunt*

(2012) Dir. Cristian Mungiu


Beyond the Hills is Cristian Mungiu’s follow up to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which won the coveted Palme d’Or in 2007 and once again, the director utilises the close friendship of two female protagonists to comment upon gender and politics influenced by Communism and its chokehold on Romanian society. While political and sexual repressions were depicted through the gamut of illegal abortion, here it is commented upon through an organised religious sect.

Volchita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) are young women in their twenties, having grown up together in an orphanage. They have a familial bond tied by history and circumstance rather than blood; the true nature of their relationship is hinted at yet remains somewhat ambiguous throughout. Alina returns from Germany, where she now works, for a few days – a holiday – expectant that Volchita will return with her. Instead, she finds her friend living in a Monastery deep in the Romanian hills, literally hidden from civilisation embedded in an austere, archaic landscape. Volchita is confined to the bosom of Nuns who cohabit under the strict patriarchal, authoritarian rule of ‘Father’ (Valeriu Anchuta). The devout community stands alone next to an unconsecrated Church which houses a small congregation on a holy day. A sign on the front gate reads, “This is the house of God, forbidden to anybody of a different religion. Believe and don’t doubt”, the irony of which is not lost on the viewer especially once learning of the idolatrous and essentially, sacrilegious existence of this ‘House of God’. It is interesting and somewhat staggering to note that nearly 86% of the Romanian population practises the Orthodox faith, despite the fact that the country has no state religion but then, this film is not preoccupied with religious institution, at least not completely.


Mungiu’s third feature is a love story of sorts, faith at its very heart; belief in State, family and in a God which remains largely silent. It is a film about exorcism/possession, one situated outside of the confines of genre conventions and misogynistic dictatorship which is set on suppressing sinners who also happen to be women. The population outside is at a distance. You would be forgiven for thinking of it as a historical drama, the community is frozen in time, isolated, amid a lack of running water and electricity, save for Alina and her contemporary clothes. She is often the only splash of colour in an otherwise dark, dismal, and sombre mise-en-scène. She is a symbol of the outside world threatening to upset and challenge the religious conservatism and totalitarianism that appear to have engulfed Volchita.

The film is beautifully shot, blue and grey hued washes are abundant across the breathtaking landscape always captured in long shot, adding, not only, to its beauty but also educing the notion of freedom especially when juxtaposed with the interior medium shots. All employ, long takes, deep focus and are tightly framed which feeds the claustrophobic and repressive nature of the Monastery, exacerbating the tension between the religious and secular dichotomy and, in addition, the verisimilar style of storytelling Mungiu and his Romanian New Wave contemporaries adopt.

Beyond the Hills is deliberately paced to show the mundanity of life and natural flow of time. It is an enthralling and chilling commentary on traditionalism, irrationality of society and humanity at its most flawed. By its conclusion, which takes a jolting twist, all are accountable and yet there is no obvious villain. The final shot will resonate for a long time after the film has finished, once again, proving Mungiu as a director of merit, one who can coax astonishing performances from his leading actors and I know I, for one, will be awaiting his next contribution with bated breath.

*They condemn what they don’t understand


Review: Behind the Candelabra (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2013)


Upon hearing the news regarding Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ I, like a lot of the movie-going public, flocked to see Side Effects (2013) and was left utterly disappointed. For me Haywire (2011), Magic Mike (2012) and the afore-mentioned have not been, well, particularly good. However, any reluctance I felt about Behind the Candelabra quickly dissipated upon reading reviews from Cannes and seeing the odd TV spot/trailer – also general curiosity is hard to ignore.

The film is based upon the memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson, which recounts the tempestuous six year relationship between the blonde, animal handler Thorson and the pianist extraordinaire and showman, Liberace. The candelabra referring to the sparklingly opulent piece of tableware Liberace always had placed upon his piano. The interesting thing about the candle tree is that, literally, you cannot actually hide behind it, but arguably be seen through it, part of your features hidden from view. Soderbergh attempts to show the viewer what is behind it, a glimpse of a man who insisted on hiding his sexuality from view. Unable to secure a major Hollywood studio to back the film, the director believed that studio rejection was down to it being ‘too gay’, thankfully, HBO stepped into the breach and produced this biopic. As a result, there will be no cinema release in the States and any accolades that Douglas could be nominated, or indeed deserve, for his portrayal of the flamboyant entertainer, are limited to Europe.


It is 1977 and the opening scene introduces the viewer to Thorson (Matt Damon) and his simple lifestyle working with animals and living with his Foster parents Rose and Joe Carracappa (Jane Morris and Garrett M. Brown) on a ranch in California. He is picked up in a bar by Bob Black (Scott Bakula) who, upon next meeting, flies the teenager to Vegas to meet ‘Lee’. Thorson quickly finds himself in a relationship with the much older, closeted, devout Catholic star. Spanning ten years, each year displayed upon an intertitle, Scott and Lee’s six-year relationship is very much a give-and-take kind of liaison; Liberace heaps wealth, in the form of gold and diamond jewellery, clothes, cars and a fixed abode in one of the most ostentatious surroundings, and Scott gives him what he needs in the bedroom. The pianist lived the life he chose, believing that ‘too much of a good thing is wonderful’. He, on countless occasions, denied his homosexuality and swiftly sued any tabloid/journalist who reported otherwise. The man purported on screen is one not completely removed from the lovable, warm, smiley entertainer the world seems to remember – perhaps a little darker. There is no denying the attraction to young men, however, the lonely star appeared to want a lover, friend, and son in Thorson and during one bizarre sequence ‘Lee’ and Scott meet with a lawyer to discuss the adoption process.


Their idyll becomes too comfortable with both surrendering to food during their extended ‘love-in’ and upon seeing himself on the Johnny Carson show, Liberace declares that he can no longer look so old. He enlists the surgical expertise of Dr Jack Startz (a ridiculous-looking Rob Lowe) and has a full face-lift, eye-lift…the whole shebang – the only side effect being that he cannot close his eyes, even when sleeping. Startz also sets out to recreate Scott too, into a young Liberace, complete with chin and cheek implants. The doctor then prescribes diet pills and Thorson’s spiralling unhappiness and claustrophobia from the reclusive living environment develops into an addiction with the ‘California Diet’ pills making way for cocaine. This then sees Scott sell off his possessions one by one, in order to support his increasing habit. Scott’s despondency, drug-induced mood swings and struggling with the concept of monogamy, Liberace begins to shut his lover out and they begin fighting amid jealous recriminations. It all comes to a head when Rose dies and Liberace insists on flying Scott home for his foster mother’s funeral. Upon return, Lee has already moved in Scott’s replacement and so begins a bitter battle when Scott attempts to sue for palimony – their life together, he insists, was a marriage.

In his first role since his cancer remission, Michael Douglas’ star has never shone quite so bright – not since Falling Down (1993, dir. Joel Schumacher) and Wonder Boys (2000, dir. Curtis Hanson) has he owned the screen in quite the same way – in fact, he is incandescent, sequins and glittering diamonds aside. It is hard to reconcile the virile, ladies man of the 80s and 90s, with this role; I would go as far as to say that this was the role he was born to play. Damon is, as ever, a strong presence as Thorson and the supporting cast including Debbie Reynolds as mother (Frances) Liberace, and Dan Aykroyd as Lee’s manager Seymour Heller is a joy, complete with a hairpiece to rival the showstopper himself. This feels like an HBO production and yet it still retains the richer, stylistic nuances which are associated with Soderbergh: lighting, colour washes, oblique camerawork and point-of-view. Whether his retirement or sabbatical from filmmaking is true, I am quite content for Behind the Candelabra (especially with that fabulously kitsch, blinging and camp dénouement) to be literally, albeit not technically, my last Soderbergh; at least for the time being.

Article Retrospective

Two Decades on… The Piano (Dir: Jane Campion,1993)

It is hard to believe that Palme d’Or winner The Piano is twenty years old this year, specifically given its timelessness, Michael Nyman’s evocative score (The Promise can be sampled here) and the seductive panoramic allure of a Gothic New Zealand. One which remains mesmerising upon a multitude of re-visits; frozen forever on screen.

Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is sold into marriage by her father and sails from Scotland, across rough waters to New Zealand where she and her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) are to begin a new life in the home of new husband (and father) wealthy landowner, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Ada is mute and relies upon sign language, a small notebook contained in a locket around her neck and, above all else, her piano and music to speak for her. Alisdair, not only, dismisses the importance of the instrument to his new wife but gives it away to employee George Baines (Harvey Keitel) who, upon hearing Ada play, agrees to sell it back to her one key at a time.


Writer/Director Jane Campion presents events in chronological order, much like a piece of music allowing for this story to have an introduction, middle and resolution. Campion, a filmmaker, with a propensity for engaging feminist interest through a female protagonist, desire and gaze does not disappoint with Ada. One would be forgiven for thinking the character is a product of the oppressive, Victorian society she inhabits, after all she is objectified from the start; sold into marriage, left on a beach much like her piano; her silence often mistaken for obedience. One could argue that this is not the case, Ada exists on the fringes of society; her self-assured identity and sheer wilfulness make her one of the most fascinating characters committed to celluloid. Her austere costume (designed and created by Janet Patterson) functions for and against her femininity (Bruzzi, 1997). These items often restrict her movements yet at other times rescue her from unwanted exposure, pawing male hands or indeed provide a place of shelter; a hoop underskirt is utilised as a makeshift tent in the opening sequences. The bonnet is a symbol of submissiveness but tends to be discarded more often than not.


The piano and Ada are inextricably linked and the bound motif represents her voice, sexuality, passion, mood and freedom; a tool that can be, and is, used against her. Power struggle appears to be the main theme of the film displayed through sexual politics, patriarchy and colonialism. Alisdair is the white settler whose link to the Māori people is Baines, a coloniser who has adapted to the ways of the native (he still has tartan items displayed about his home pertaining to his Scottish roots) but has attempted to assimilate into NZ culture with his clothing, wild hair and Māori tattoos which adorn his nose. These markings add a sexual aggressiveness to his ‘othered’ facade; however, one would argue that it is his whiteness and lack of education which makes him belligerent, specifically in relation to the Māori people in this text. Rather ideologically, they display a naïve innocence which encourages the idea of Pākehā as the savage. Neill and Keitel give outstanding performances as the uptight Stewart and outsider Baines, men who conform and subvert type/expectation as much as the females in the diegesis. It is, however, Holly Hunter’s film. An accomplished pianist, she played all musical pieces and, allegedly, insisted upon communicating through sign language on and off set as the film was made. In fact save for Ada and her ‘mind’s voice’ at the film’s commencement and end, one forgets Hunter can really talk at all.

While The Piano can be described as a Gothic melodrama or Art film, at its narrative heart it depicts a mother-daughter relationship, offers up ideas of the absent father and draws parallels not only with the play within it: Bluebeard (Charles Perrault) but Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) in its portrayal of a female who leaves home and enters a new world dominated by a male figure. It deals with concepts of freedom, affronting destiny, definition of the self, re-birth and the sexual-political appropriation of ambiguities. It showcases the directorial talent of ‘Kiwi’ Campion and her cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh who insist upon giving the audience a distinctive, sexually provocative spectacle; a sumptuous production which depicts the uneasiness of the New Zealand landscape with authenticity and, even occasional, mirth. The Piano remains a gorgeous and enigmatic masterpiece, one which continues to get better with age.