George Mallory once wrote: “If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.”
The 2017 documentary film Mountain goes one better, using a somewhat more eloquent quote which has been variously attributed to two powerhouses of philosophical thought, either Friedrich Nietzsche or Megan Fox: “Those who dance are often seen as mad by those who cannot hear the music.”
With scope and ambition every bit as lofty as its scenery, Mountain attempts to examine and perhaps even explain the undeniable allure of the alpine terrain. In order to do this, Director Jennifer Peedom masterfully leads an inspiring ensemble of artists, each in full command of their craft. The result is something quite spectacular.
This film is beautiful in many ways. As principal cinematographer, Renan Ozturk brings captivating, awe-inspiring and occasionally horrifying (ahem… Honnold) visuals to the film. The crisp mountain vistas and dramatic fly-overs are truly something to behold, a veritable feast. But it’s the score that truly transports us to another land, with lashings of drama and majesty provided by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Lead by Richard Tognetti, the mournful brass and anxious strings take the viewer on an emotional journey that mimics the valleys and summits onscreen.
All that being said, we’ve seen time and again that stunning visuals and a rousing score do not a classic documentary make. That task falls to Peedom and her co-writer Robert MacFarlane, who have paired the fantastic audio-visual elements with an insightful narrative. In doing so, they’ve created something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
The narration provided by Willem Dafoe is intentionally sparse, giving the viewer breathing space to absorb and reflect. Similarly as with her critically acclaimed documentary Sherpa, Peedom suggests and infers, but more importantly questions. She allows the viewer time to ruminate on these questions, giving them an opportunity to examine them through their own personal lens.
That said, the messages in this film are still loud and clear. Mountain is not a homage, nor is it an action film or an alpinist’s circle-jerk. There is a lot of love in this film, but it stops short of worship. It’s a documentary which comes from a place of intimacy, not of adulation, and that means that it’s close enough to see mountain culture for what it truly is, warts and all. Mountain clearly takes aim at the corruption and commercialisation of the modern scene, inviting us to return to a place of humility and respect.
Where many have failed, Peedom and crew have succeeded. Mountain tackles the age old question of “Why?” with aplomb, not because it provides a definitive answer, but rather because it guides viewers to create their own. Whilst ostensibly a film about geographical features, Mountain ends up being an evocative examination of humanity. It reveals our actions in the mountains as a microcosm of the spectrum of human endeavour – yes, there is arrogance and insanity, but there is also nobility and grace.
Mountain is a rare cinematic experience, and folks of all stripes will get something out of it. Climbers will leave inspired and hopefully somewhat humbled. Non-climbers will leave with a greater understanding of the motives which drive them. Everyone will leave in awe.
5 out of 5
Mountain is in selected Australian cinemas until Wednesday 4th October. Check here for times.