Dark and grim and less ambiguous than perhaps it should be, Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills is, like the Romanian filmmaker's 2007 masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the story of two young women trapped in a societal prison. In 4 Months, set in the waning days of the totalitarian Ceausescu regime, one of the girls seeks an illegal abortion and finds herself hemmed in by harsh judgments, shady abortionists, and chilling uncertainty.

In Beyond the Hills, the setting is a monastery perched atop rugged land, where a strict Orthodox priest (Valeriu Andriuta) presides over a group of devout nuns. One of them, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), returns from the train station with Alina (Cristina Flutur), a close friend from their childhood days in an orphanage. Alina, who had moved to Germany, wants Voichita to leave the monastery, to pick up their friendship - and, it is suggested, their love affair - where it left off.

But Voichita has found God and asks whether Alina can live in the monastery. The priest is clearly reluctant - there is little room, little money. Then, struck with a fever, Alina becomes violent and abusive. She is restrained and taken to the hospital. Voichita is filled with worry and dread.

The two actresses - Stratan with her big, round eyes and Flutur with her thin lips and sunken gaze - are compelling in their contrasting roles. The mystery of what ails Alina - madness? melancholy? the Devil? - unravels slowly. Until panic sets in.

Shot in long, loping takes, Beyond the Hills is about the push and pull of the secular world and a world of faith. It is a film about religious hysteria, about a closed social order, cut off and cultlike. Based on reports of a real 2005 incident, it is a film that asks its viewer to consider the nature of good and evil, love and trust - and trust that turns into something like blind faith.

Or simply blind indifference.EndText

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.