DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Mountain
In contrast to the informational methods of most common documentaries, poetry is the point of view within Mountain. Featuring towering imagery enriched by a sumptuous narration from recent Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom’s follow-up to Sherpa is a testimony to what draws people to the mental and physical summits they seek to conquer. The size of this film demands the biggest screen you can find. Locally here in the topographically boring Chicago, Mountain is playing at the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview.
The captivation point with this film is instantaneous thanks to the wide vistas and wintery heights of geological awe that begin immediately and never cease. Your eyes are opened wide by climber and photographer Renan Ozturk’s cinematography. The aerial drone and helicopter camera work has a “how in the hell did they get that shot” level of amazement. Ozturk’s visual palette gently shifts between black-and-white and color and also adjusts its pacing between slow motion and speed effects. The wonderful flow, aided greatly by a powerful and intense operatic score from Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra that cues each mood, takes the nerve-racking intensity and twists the vertigo even tighter. Without taking into account the words and people, Mountain is a perfect package of perilous beauty.
That tangible sense of risk becomes clear by watching the nameless people featured in the film’s many selected sequences. Some scenes are intimate to stare into the vigorous eyes of determination. Others moments step back and show how small us humans really are against the backdrop of Earth’s raw and jagged contours. Both varieties are endlessly interesting. Globetrotting to unnamed places around the world, Mountain is an observational documentary piece targeting the classic man vs. nature conflict and its connected attraction.
LESSON #1: THE ALLURE OF MOUNTAINS — Mountain examines the ruminations of how men at safe distances went from their mythical fear of gods and monsters they believed resided where the rocks touched the clouds to the wanton draw of conquering and taming those masses. The acts of lunacy to climb mountains for some is a strengthening test of courage for others. The true mountaineers seek the sublime blend of pleasure and terror. The live for it.
To explain all of this undeniable appeal, the emphasis is on writer Robert Mcfarlane’s versification. With an ideal amount of timbre and grizzle, Willem Dafoe reads passages from Mcfarlane’s “Mountains of the Mind” with an imposing seriousness to match the subject. The prose waxes on all of the possible majesty under the sought-after joys found in these “dreadful splendors.” His line readings fall and blanket like the fresh powder of snowfall, cold at first, but idyllic after time.
LESSON #2: THE MENTAL FORTITUDE TO TAKE ON CHALLENGES — As that allure grew from Lesson #1, fascination replaced trepidation. Adventure replaced reverence. Men possess will to search the within the intimidating and uncontrollable elements. They make the effort to escape environments of human arrangement and control in seeking these climbing quests. Those drives start in the mind.
Free of talking heads, guests with titles, and labeled settings, less is more with Mountain. With a complete sense of anonymous aura and personal mystery, the verses Dafoe speaks do more than some over-explanation of who, what, and where we are watching. That format makes this documentary more a visual essay that tidy travelogue.
Simply put, both the film (and likewise the audience) know exactly how to shut up and watch the natural beauty show itself off. There’s a power to be found in such a mystery that roars to spellbinding piercing through vagueness. Mountain is high quality example of a documentary going for nonfiction poetry over educational storytelling. There is certainly a place for this, a more artistic one at that. If you need the human interest stories, go find Meru and Everest. This one is for the endless scope and witnessed reflection, and the indifferent mountain always wins.