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on 11 March 2018
Voichita is about 25 years old. She’s a shy, modest woman with a pixie voice that’s barely audible most of the time. She’s dutiful and obedient, happiest when told what to do in the remote monastery where she resides. Everyone here wears black — Father Superior and all the nuns (perhaps a dozen of them, including Mother Superior, the eldest woman in the group). Voichita addresses these ‘superior’ people as Papa and Mama. She grew up in an orphanage, not knowing her parents, so here in the monastery Papa and Mama are her parents by proxy. She seems content with her life of simple routine: sweeping up, chopping wood, gathering eggs, fetching water from the well, praying, reciting psalms, singing hymns. There’s security in routine, a sense of order and calm. Calamity occurs elsewhere, in the chaotic world beyond. There God has been forsaken for the pleasures of hedonism and momentary fulfilment.
Voichita left that world behind when she entered the monastery and took her vows. She found God. Where was He? In her all the time, it seems. She was distracted by the world, interrupted. She hadn’t learned how to look to truly perceive. But when she understood the truth about herself and the world she decided to devote her life to the source of that truth. Father Superior, her Papa, must have seen the depth of her sincerity, the purity of her devotion and commitment. He looks content with her and all the other sisters.
If he was a different sort of man (and the women were too) he could have a harem. As it is, he has a kind of spiritual collection of women. He is God’s vessel. It’s he, the only male, thus the alpha male, who enacts the rituals from the Holy Book. He speaks and the women listen. More than this, they obey, his word sacrosanct, unchallenged as commanded.
Harmony reigns, dissent unknown. A sort of rigid, austere peace animates the place. A peace of goodwill but one lacking in fun, laughter, spontaneity, humour. God’s business is serious, as it must be in this world of toil, suffering, sin and temptation. If demons and the Devil were not part of God’s design, they wouldn’t exist. They’re as real as the risen Christ and his angels, and as such are here to test us. At least that’s the best available theory. So we must be steadfast in our faith.
Voichita is. She wasn’t always devout. But she is now, having found her way here by God’s grace.
Jane Eyre had Helen Burns at Lowood School. Jane, too, was an orphan. Helen was her first real friend, her first true love. How would Jane have lived beyond Lowood if Helen had lived? Of course we’ll never know. Jane had to live with the grief and memory of that love. Helen died confident she would be in Heaven with Jesus and all the angels, but Jane was not so sure. She knew too much heartache in this world to believe it was made by love for love. Only an inadequate god could have made the world as it is.
Jane is to Helen what Voichita is to Alina, though their roles are reversed — Voichita the believer, Alina the doubter. The girls grew up together in a Romanian orphanage. They had each other. They were inseparable — so close in fact their love became physical too. Some boys may have been attractive, but none could take the place of either girl. Their love sustained and saved them through all the days of growing up without parents.
But now as young women they are separated. Voichita joined the monastery perhaps two or three years ago. Alina meanwhile went to work in Germany. There she was a waitress, among other things. But she got lonely and homesick — lonely for Voichita, homesick for her language, country, personal history. We cross borders but they don’t change us, the past always with us.
Alina is a lost soul. She has no divine love, no transcendent connection to the unity of things, the cosmic to her just an abstraction. It isn’t felt, so the earth is a stranger to her, a place that has lost touch with the cosmos. She wanders it in search of herself, a search that brings her back to Voichita.
Alina returns to Romania and Voichita. They meet in the local station after Alina’s train arrives. Alina is emotional and holds Voichita in a long love embrace. After a spell too long Voichita becomes embarrassed and says, “People are looking.” But Alina holds on, hugging Voichita passionately, not caring what anyone thinks or says.
They walk across hilly fields and along a muddy country road to reach the monastery. It looks hundreds of years old, built from wood and stone. There is no electricity, gas, indoor plumbing. Candles, fireplaces, a wood-fired oven and outdoor well have to suffice. However, they have a motorcar. It’s old and beat up but runs. They need it to keep in contact with the outside world, though they also have cell phones.
Everything in the drama hinges on Alina’s faith. She loves Voichita; that much is apparent. But does she love God just as much, if not more? The monastery is a place for the devout, the committed, not one for doubters, vacillators, unbelievers. So Alina faces a challenge. Can she change? Does she want to? What will it take within her to allow her to change and stay?
And what of Voichita whose faith has been so steadfast? What effect will Alina’s presence at the monastery have on her?
The cinematography is chaste with muted colours, nothing flashy, in keeping with the austerity of the surroundings. If there is sensuality and beauty, it comes from the light and things that reflect it.
The ending, such as it is, is abrupt. Blink in that moment (no special emotional moment) and the film is suddenly over. I guess the director (the talented Cristian Mungiu) preferred ambiguity. In my case, I preferred more narrative information and conventional closure. Instead, this might have happened (though I say it jokingly): the last canister of film spools through to the end and the director says, “O.K., fine,” saving him the trouble of having to yell “Cut!” Cristian Mungiu as Ed Wood. No one at Cannes ever thought of that when they handed out awards to him.