Once, when I was about 10, I had a toothache. Rather than take me to the dentist, the adults in charge of my life decided that a Pentecostal preacher should, instead, anoint my head with oil and pray over me. This was not quite effective, but the experience -- and many others like it -- did come in handy later for gauging the woefully laughable inaccuracies in mainstream films' often ham-fisted portrayals of deeply religious people. The documentary Jesus Camp notwithstanding, it almost always boils down to one too many pop-eyed loons shouting "Praise the Lord!" one too many times. And that's just not how it is.
Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, on the other hand, knows just how it is: quiet and quietly sure of its own moral correctness, especially when it comes to subjugating people it believes owe the Church nonstop penance. In this story's case, it's young women who refuse to submit to male and/or institutional authority, making it not that far removed from Mungiu's acclaimed abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In both films women are in deep trouble, their bodies are not their own and their agency is limited by customs and social structures not of their making. This makes their pain an excuse for punitive laws and, here, exorcism.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) grew up in the same orphanage. Alina, without saying so, has always been in love with her best friend and spent her adolescence acting as Voichita's protector, beating up predatory boys, her devotion growing more and more obsessive. When the two reunite in their mid-twenties after several years apart, the track-suit-clad Alina's desperate sobs at the train station are all the film needs to show you. Nobody says "lesbian." It's right there on the table.
But Voichita doesn't quite get it. She's moved on, joined an extremely strict rural Orthodox sect and become a nun. The unemployed Alina has nowhere else to go, so Voichita invites her to stay for a while. Alina wants Voichita to leave the monastery and go to Germany with her ("I came to get her," she states, matter of factly, calling the religious refuge a "cave" when asked her intentions). When it becomes clear that the headstrong woman means to defy the priest -- known as "Papa" to the all-female cloister -- and to woo Voichita away, when her actions become more brazenly disobedient, focused and, at times, violent, the group solution is to exorcise the demon that is surely controlling her behavior.
What comes next is, again, quiet, but also quietly devastating, with detours down the roads of intolerance, mercilessness, cold rejection of outsiders' experiences, mystical and subjective interpretation of "signs," overt woman-on-woman misogyny and brutally strict penance. When confronted with a booklet listing 464 sins she must examine in herself, Alina first ticks off each one on paper before giving up, as the other nuns warn her that to confess incompletely is to not confess at all, inviting double the punishment from God. Who wouldn't give up?
Mungiu knows that high levels of fanaticism are too easily blown up into cartoonishness on screen, though, that provoking discussion between secular and religious audiences is a more vital objective than to hammer on one side or the other, so he restrains his dialogue and his camera remains distant. This allows the ignorance to bloom its own poison, Alina's possible mental illness to muddy the water and the sect's well-intentioned brutality to overwhelm everyone involved. Indicting people who are already powerless is simplistic; Mungiu never takes that bait. It'd be as effective as rubbing cooking oil on a toothache.