“You never feel more alive than when you know, at any minute, you could die.”
A lone free climber clings to the sharp ridges of the cliff face. He has no ropes, no safety net. Impossibly, he smiles. It’s just him, the mountain, and oblivion. How can anyone love this danger? What drives humans upwards to the wild, unpredictable terrains of the mountain peaks?
This is precisely the mystery posed by director Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain. Part documentary, part montage, all poetry, Mountain is Peedom’s follow-up to her BAFTA award-nominated 2015 documentary, Sherpa. Where Sherpa told the moving story of the deaths of sixteen Sherpas on Everest, Mountain asks us what it is about Everest that calls to us in the first place. Only three centuries ago, climbing a mountain would have been considered pure insanity. Peaks were places of peril, not beauty. Why, then, are we now drawn to mountains in our millions?
The film is a spectacular cinematic and musical collaboration between Peedom and the superb Australian Chamber Orchestra. Assembled from breathtaking footage by high-altitude cinematographer Renan Ozturk, and visuals sourced from adventure archives, the film is held together by the sparse narration of Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe.
Dafoe’s deep, weathered voice adds story to the wonder of the stunning visuals. At times, his voice transcends the music, hauntingly describing the “terrible joys” and “dreadful splendours” of the ascent. At other times it cuts through the soundtrack and fills you with dread as you watch athletes put themselves on the brink of the void.
For Mountain is as much a love letter to Western mountaineering as it is a scathing criticism of the modern ascent industry. “This isn’t climbing anymore,” Dafoe says. “It’s queuing. This isn’t exploration, it’s crowd-control. This is the modern industry of ascent, in which the risks are often taken most by those who have least.”
The film is full of deep ideas about deep time and nature, told by the poetic brilliance of British writer, conservationist and academic Robert Macfarlane. Peedom sought out the Mountains of the Mind author to help her bind her disparate ideas into a single, poetic thread – and the result is pure magic.
The film has an intensity of feeling rarely seen, where the images, music and poetry are given equal weight, weaving in and out of one another. The music alone is divine. The exalted music of Beethoven, Vivaldi and more are treated with reverence, every note recorded especially for the soundtrack. Richard Tognetti leads the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and composed original pieces for the film.
Mountain will have you hypnotised as much as it will have you on the edge of your seat, but at 74 minutes it does feel a little overstretched. This film is certainly not for everyone. However, if you love mountains, adventuring and intense cinematic experiences, do yourself a favour: take 74 minutes out of your day, leave your vertigo at home, and prepare to be amazed.
Reviewed by Yasmin Martin
Check out the official website here.