'Montanha': Film Review

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Some magical moments can't quite save this coming-of-ager.

The debut feature from Portuguese director Joao Salaviza, whose shorts have won a Golden Bear and a Palme d'Or, stars David Mourato as the recalcitrant 14-year-old protagonist.

A 15-year-old kid struggles to deal with all that’s thrown at him in Montanha, the first feature from Portuguese director Joao Salaviza, who has won both a Golden Bear in Berlin and a Palme d'Or in Cannes for his shorts. This is an intimate film, shot in often darkly saturated images, that rests almost entirely on the shoulders of young David Mourato, who plays the saturnine lead. Thankfully, he’s the always watchable center of a movie whose screenplay alternates between wispy and ordinary in terms of its tone and is too baggy in terms of its structure to set it apart from countless other coming-of-age films. Nonetheless, after premieres in Venice and San Sebastian, the pic should find a place on the festival circuit, while this experience should help Salaviza forge ahead as he prepares his second feature, which will reportedly be set in Brazil.

There’s a scene in the second half of Montanha that explains visually where young adolescent David (Mourato) is at in life — not a boy anymore, but not yet a man, David sits down on a bed and presses the tummy of a cuddly toy, which makes it say “hello." At the same time, the teen lights a cigarette. It is in well-observed and wordless moments such as these that Salaviza’s talent is most obvious, visually illustrating in just a few seconds where his character finds himself. But there are not quite enough of these moments to lend the film its own dialogue-free lyricism or to compensate for its narrative shortcomings.

It’s summertime, and David looks after his grandfather by himself in the latter’s Lisbon apartment, where all the blinds are down to keep out the heat. When Grandpa suddenly ends up in the hospital, David’s divorced mother, Monica (Maria Joao Pinho), and kid sister, Ema (Ema Araujo), come over from the U.K., where they live, to see Granddad and, suddenly, look after David. But his major responsibilities and relative independence before the hospitalization — which is only hinted at and could have been emphasized more clearly — makes David resistant to suddenly follow an adult’s orders for things he was used to doing and deciding about on his own.

Lounging around with a buddy (Rodrigo Perdigao) with whom he steals a scooter, only to regret it not much later, or making awkward moves on a girl (Cheyenne Domingues) who likes to hang out with the two boys fill the lazy summer months. School is not something that interests the boy, and when a teacher (entirely kept offscreen) reminds David in a very serious conversation about his behavior that this is already his third school this year, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. That said, the film fails to suggest who took care of all the school changes, with Mom abroad and his mostly absent Dad (Carloto Cotta) in a catatonic funk. It’s clear his father’s absence is designed to accelerate David’s growth, but the way Salaviza, who also wrote the screenplay, has set this up is not quite detailed enough to make it feel organic. 

There is one really good scene in which the father tries to make amends with his son, and his attempt to hug his offspring ends up transforming into a physical struggle between the two. But while the image of a young man fighting his father and trying to break free is laden with symbolic meaning, it also raises more questions than it answers. Why is his father mostly absent? And what, if anything, is exactly his relationship with his children and his wife or ex-wife? Salaviza, who looks at just a couple of days in the life of young David, leaves the answers to questions such as these up in the air, a space much like where David seems to find himself. Looking down over the city from the eighth floor of a nondescript apartment building, he’s suspended between childhood and adulthood as much as floating over the adult life that awaits him down below. Too bad that Montanha's powerful moments are easily overlooked in a sea of more middling material.

Production companies: Filmes do Tejo, Les Films de l’apres-midi
Cast: David Mourato, Rodrigo Perdigao, Cheyenne Domingues, Maria Joao Pinho, Carloto Cotta
Writer-director: Joao Salaviza
Producers: Maria Joao Mayer, Francois d’Artemare
Director of photography: Vasco Viana
Production designer: Nadia Henriques
Costume designer: Margarida Ruas
Editor: Edgar Feldman
Music: Norberto Lobo
Sales: Pyramide International

Not rated, 91 minutes