A remote Romanian Orthodox monastery prepares for Easter, a gaggle of docile nuns laboring under the stern but benevolent gaze of their priest, affectionately called “Papa” (Valeriu Andriuta).
Into their midst comes Alina (Cristina Flutur), a visitor bringing with her the troubles of the secular world. An economic exile returning from years of menial work in Germany, she has come to her homeland in hopes of reuniting with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who has entered the religious order.
The young women were inseparable friends, and likely lovers, during their upbringing in a state orphanage. Alina wants Voichita to leave the monastery and rekindle their relationship. Voichita demurs, provoking Alina to ever more intense efforts at persuasion. She is possessed by raw emotional need, and the tension grows excruciating as her behavior becomes increasingly unhinged. Papa and his nuns fear she is suffering an actual demonic possession.
From the first shot of Alina shouldering her way through a scrum of railway passengers, writer-director Cristian Mungiu marks her as a bullheaded individualist. When she encounters religious devotion, a force she can’t reason aside or overpower, she drives herself mad, thrashing like a candidate for exorcism. The order responds by its own best lights, attempting to cleanse her soul. Restrained on a makeshift platform, she looks as if she was crucified, a martyr for love.
Mungiu won the Cannes Palme d’Or for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” which put two female friends in peril as they sought a back-alley abortionist during the Ceausescu dictatorship. Here the issues are different, with each side of the culture clash given its due, but the outcome is equally dire. The final shot, with windshield wipers struggling to clean away a torrent of muddy water, suggests that no human agency is great enough to handle this world’s misery. Hardly a kick-up-your-heels philosophy, but perhaps a realistic one.