Blending breath-taking footage, a sparse almost aphoristic narration and a soundtrack that takes a very central role, Jennifer Peedom’s new film explores man’s relationship with some of the planet’s highest mountains. Richard Tognetti’s fine Australian Chamber Orchestra does more than merely accompanying the images, it adds powerfully to the texture of this extraordinary film. Tognetti as composer contributes some of the music but the bulk of it is from the classics – how amazingly Vivaldi works for scenes of skiers hurtling down vertiginous slopes – and a highlight, for me, was his wonderfully poised, almost vibrato-free playing of the central movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (a section when the beauty of the playing almost took my mind off the images).
It must be said that if you suffer from vertigo you’ll spend large portions of the film with your eyes closed – the opening sequence of a climber ascending what looks like the sheer face of a mountain in a literally death-defying climb without ropes or any other kind of safety equipment, climbing with just his hands and feet, is extraordinary. It’s called ‘free soloing’ and it’s terrifying to watch. To do it, clearly not if you have no nerves at all, as the climber smiles beatifically as he jumps sideways to a new ledge, hanging on with just his fingers.
The script, sparse yet concentrated, is spoken with gravity and warmth by Willem Dafoe, and is full of thought-provoking ideas – it is the only speech in the entire film but it provides a gentle narrative that’s largely moved on by the images.
The allure of climbing mountains (or parachuting onto mountains, or paragliding through them, or any of the myriad approaches to altitude that the film illustrates) is presented as being a reaction – or perhaps a conscious denial – of the ‘safety’ of modern life. It certainly leads to some stomach-turning ways of fencing with death. And, as a serene counterpoint to the adrenalin rushes of the bulk of the film, we spend time in Buddhist temples built high up in mountain ranges where the altitude and quiet engender a powerful sense of peace.
At 70 minutes, Mountain isn’t long, but it’s a virtuoso piece of film-making – the movie was assembled from over 2000 hours shot in 15 countries – that heightens the senses and opens the eyes to the beauty of our planet. Strongly recommended.