Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mountain (2015)

A scene from Yaelle Kayam's MOUNTAIN will play at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, on April 21 - May 5,2016. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
WHO: This was written and directed by Israeli director Yaelle Kayam. It's her first feature-length film.

WHAT: Shani Klein, who played the ambitious officer in the military comedy Zero Motivation does an about-face here, carrying the drama as Tzvia, an Orthodox Jewish wife and mother awakening to her increasing alienation from her familial roles, and doing something about it. She lives a fairly isolated existence from everyone other than her Yeshiva teacher husband and their four children, as they make their home in a very unusual location: in the middle of Jerusalem's Mount of Olives cemetery, surrounded on all sides by white graves and stunning views of the surrounding hillsides. As she explains to a pair of cemetery visitors from far-off, exotic Tel Aviv, who have knocked on her door asking to use the bathroom, she's there to provide a "Jewish presence" on the sacred site, although she also jokes that her family is called "the petting zoo". When the visitors describe Orthodox life in Israel's largest city as having "everything a community needs", Kayam allows their words to settle in, as a community is precisely what Tzvia lacks.

In its absence, she occupies herself in her few housework-free moments by sneaking tastes of jelly and smoking (it's been a long time since I've seen a new film that allowed its heroine to derive such satisfaction from nicotine- a metaphorical foreshadowing of the death that will soon come from Tzvia's little rebellions.) She makes innocent small talk with a Palestinian gravedigger and then lies about it to her husband. She communes with a South Korean tourist visiting the grave of the famous Hebrew poet Zelda, who recites a translation of her poem "A Drunk, Embroiled Will" in Korean (left unsubtitled in the film, which is an interesting choice as it's clear Tzvia has it memorized in Hebrew; audience members who don't know it, or Korean, are excluded from what's in her mind as she hears him speak.) Meanwhile her husband grows increasingly distant, siding against her when she tries to discipline their eldest, taking on new responsibilities outside the home and finding excuses to avoid his duties in the bedroom.

So when Tzvia stumbles upon people copulating atop a one of the tombs on one of her evening cigarette breaks, she's primed to be curious. It's the last thing she or the audience expects to see, but it turns out to be a functioning community (albeit a sacreligous one) of prostitutes, pimps and johns regularly making use of Tzvia's "backyard" as an open-air substitute for an hourly-rate hotel. Chased away after she's discovered observing this surreal sex mart, she returns subsequent evenings with a pot of specially-prepared sustenance- her contribution to a community that may be the complete opposite of the Orthodox Judiaism she's used to, but which is the ultimately more welcoming one? How our protagonist answers that question is the hinge for one of the more wickedly delicious (as soon as I could see it coming a big grin came upon my face) open-endings I've had the pleasure of viewing.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, at 6:30 PM, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: I have a half-baked (no, that's too generous; quarter-baked is more like it) notion that Mountain forms a kind of unintentioned trilogy with a pair of other features I've recently seen set within religious communities: each of the three major Abrahamic groups is represented here: this one involves Judaism, Under the Shadow (which I just saw at SFIFF the night before watching Mountain) is Islam, and The Witch (not a SFIFF film but one I saw at the Alamo Drafthouse a couple months ago) is Christianity. All three rely on an immediate high-definition video aesthetic that somehow makes them feel very current, even though the latter two are period pieces. Nobody, least of all yours truly, is trying to sell Mountain as a horror movie like the other two are, but each of the three films involve questions of faith and community, and end with life-or-death stakes considerably raised. I wouldn't want to say much more without giving each film a rewatch (especially The Witch, since it's least fresh in my mind).

HOW: digital projection.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: As much as I liked Mountain the SFIFF screening I'd most like to recommend today is the remarkably one-of-a-kind Cameraperson, directed by Kirsten Johnson, my new idol after seeing her documentary Sunday. But its final festival screening tonight, at the New Mission, is at RUSH status (a.k.a. no guarantee of any available tickets), and I wouldn't be able to write more than 100 words on it anyway due to press restrictions in place until its expected theatrical release later this year. Another alternative is the Animated Shorts program happening at the Roxie tonight; I saw its first screening and although it's not the strongest such set I've seen programmed at SFIFF, it definitely includes plenty of worthy work including Caveh Zahedi's self-perpetuating Bob Dylan Hates Me, Max Hattler's abstract, post-industrial All Rot, Chenglin Xie's brutal, honest Life Smartphone, Dan McHale's lovely Splotch and Kazue Monno and Takeshi Nagata's unique Track.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Witch screens tonight at the New Parkway in Oakland. This is the last Frisco Bay cinema screening of it that I am aware of.

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