'Mountain': Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Yaelle Kayam’s starkly original first feature about good and evil is a head-turner.

A drama of loneliness assails an Orthodox family living in a cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives is the hyper-charged crossroads where a young Jewish woman undergoes a major inner transformation in Yaelle Kayam’s striking first feature, Mountain. Blessed with a riveting central performance by newcomer Shani Klein in a role that keeps you guessing what’s next, the film should appeal especially to women as well as those curious to see the traditional lifestyle of an Orthodox family. But be warned that Kayam, who also wrote the screenplay, overturns all expectations regarding the proper conduct for an obedient, God-fearing wife and mother. Though these defiant undertones come off as unrealistic and a little forced, they re what most international audiences will find attractive about the film. After its Venice bow, it takes off for Toronto's Discovery program.

The mountain in the title is the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Tzvia (Shani Klein), a young mother of four, lives with her Orthodox family. Their two-story white stone home has a bad rental location, being part of a Jewish cemetery (it is separated from holy ground by a mere wire.) Exactly why they are there is never clarified. They aren’t the caretakers -- that job belongs to a Palestinian man who treks over daily. They seem to have been placed there by some religious authority to “have a presence”, but when people visiting the cemetery notice them, it is with distaste and puzzlement. Certainly it isn’t a cheerful place to raise a family. The sense of death hangs heavy.

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The main victim is Tzvia. A big, heavy-set woman with a beautiful face, she wears a scarf that hides her hair and oversize clothes that desexualize her. Every day, she is left alone after her husband Reuven (Avshallom Pollack), a Yeshiva teacher, takes the schoolbus with the kids. Often he volunteers his teaching time late into the evening. It’s obvious that a distance has grown between them. Not only is he too self-absorbed to talk to her, but after she’s purified herself with a ritual mikveh bath to resume sexual relations after her period, he rolls over in bed with a lame excuse. Her husband’s sexual rejection adds to Tzvia’s loneliness and hurt.

The turning point comes when she walks through the cemetery one night and stumbles across the surreal scene of a man and woman passionately embracing on a gravestone. Instead of being turned off, Tzvia’s curiosity is whetted. Unknown to her husband, she becomes a regular nighttime visitor and friendly with the underworld denizens who haunt the place -- pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers. Whether the attraction is the dark and forbidden, or she's just desperate for someone to talk to, it’s clear she has crossed the line with her new acquaintances.

As time goes on, Reuven appears increasing withdrawn and inaccessible. It’s worrisome when he stares out the window and whistles the theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Then there’s the matter of the rat poison he brings home to take care of a pest problem. Like a loaded gun, rat poison is a plot element that begs to be used, but how? Kayam’s teasing screenplay keeps viewers guessing until a shock ending.  While the story is eccentric, Klein’s central performance has a fetching naturalness about it that connects easily to the audience, making the ending even more dissettling.

The visuals, lensed by D.P. Itay Marom, have a stripped down, stately elegance and are pretty stunning throughout. Bright white daylight reflecting off the gravestones alternates with pitch black darkness, carrying forward the theme of good and evil. Hila Gluck's striking costumes echo this idea.

Production companies: July-August Productions in association with Windelov/Lassen
Cast: Shani Klein, Avshallom Pollack, Haitham Ibrahem Omari
Director, screenwriter: Yaelle Kayam
Producers: Eilon Ratzkovsky, Yochanan Kredo, Lisa Uzrad, Yossi Uzrad, Guy Jacoel
Director of photography: Itay Marom
Production designer: Neta Dror
Music: Ophir Leibovitch
Costumes: Hila Glick
Editor: Or Ben David
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
83 minutes

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