There’s no more accurate synopsis of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom’s film Mountain than its title; it’s about mountains, broadly. Between aerial alpine shots and the droning narration of Willem Dafoe, the film opts not to focus in on any particular locale or storyline, but instead attempts to answer the sweeping questions, What are mountains? and Why have humans chosen to enter them?
This is an ambitious goal, surely, but the lack of specificity makes for not only narrative fatigue but ethical pitfalls. Mountain kicks off with a brief history of the human ethos towards mountains, beginning with an era when the mountains contained only the “holy or hostile” and people dared not enter. The script favors the collective “we” voice: “We insulated ourselves away from nature—the mountains called us back.” Now, it says, we are drawn to the wild, or at least, a special class of adventurers among us is. No matter that many people actually live and work in the outdoors, and have done so for a long time—not just as an oasis from cushy modernity.
When the film refers to “humans,” it refers to a wealthy, predominantly white leisure class, and the history it deems universal is more accurately the arc of western Romantic thought. Random shots of Buddhist monks don’t do much to change that. The film does briefly make reference to the “imperial aim” of mountaineers: to “grid, girdle, and name the upper world; to bring it and its peoples into the realm of the known and the owned.” Yet the writers encounter no cognitive dissonance between referencing these “peoples,” and the repeated thesis that humans exclusively avoided the mountains up until this point.
Mountain is at its most compelling during its athletic sequences, when mountaineers perform dazzling calisthenics against colossal landscapes. These scenes take on a humor and geometric artistry beyond the majestic National Geographic-esque landscape shots one comes to expect. The shrewd decision to feature the music of the Australian Chamber Orchestra makes these moments even more lovely. In one particularly clever sequence, climbers repeatedly plummet off of walls to the end of their ropes to the sound of a rapid string section. The symphony concludes, and two mountaineers smoke together as if sitting on a stoop, except their legs dangle thousands of feet in the air.
The film takes on land degradation as its central moral stand against the mountaineering industry, but this message is never reconciled with either the valorization of the explorers themselves or the film’s final declaration: that in the end, the mountains will always outlast us, as narrated over shots of the land’s natural processes. The viewer is primed by the sight of so many human bodies to fully grasp the mountain’s vitality, how they breathe. Here, what could instill awe is undercut by trite generalizing, and if not for the orchestra might be more effective on mute.
+painstaking and occasionally spellbinding cinematography
-narrative is vague at best, obtuse at worst
Directed by Jennifer Peedom
Violet Crown, PG, 74 min.