'Mountain' Tells the Story of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Woman Caught Between Two Worlds

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Tzvia among the graves in 'Mountain.'
Tzvia among the graves in 'Mountain.'Credit: Assaf Snir

There are many moments in “Mountain,” Yaelle Kayam’s debut feature film, in which her directorial talent is evident, notably, in the way she documents the central site where the movie unfolds, and times the style according to the few developments in the story line. Kayam, in short, is a director with the ability to cast a gaze at reality and shape that gaze cinematically. However, “Mountain” is also rife with a desire to follow the path of an artistic conception so brittle that any attempt to foist meaning on the film might bring it crashing down. In other words, one of the questions that arises in viewing it, and which acquires greater resonance subsequently, is why Kayam chose to tell us this story, and what it actually has to say. We also need to ask whether Kayam hasn’t fallen into the trap of an artistic conception of cinema that circumscribes the documentation of a place. In contrast to directors who coped successfully with this, such as Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Chan-tal Akerman and many others, Kayam does not succeed in filling that cinematic space with conceptual and emotional substance.

I don’t usually make use in reviews of PR material sent to me, but in this case I will make an exception and quote from Kayam’s “director’s statement.” She writes, “I’m inspired by landscapes and especially by cultural landscapes, not just geographical places, but also places that have historical and architectural meanings and are still relevant in our lives today. I am interested in exploring characters through the use of landscape, and placing them in extreme settings that both limit them and enable their transformation.” If only these declaratory remarks were realized adequately in the movie. As it is, I could take almost every assertion in that text and point out, distressfully, how it began to be actualized in theory, but failed in practice.

The site is the cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, by the side of which – and separated by a string of wire, as required by Jewish religious law – a family lives in a small house. Tzvia, the mother (played by Shani Klein, who showed comedic ability as the heart-touching commander in the film “Zero Motivation” and whose presence also sustains “Mountain” up to a point), is married to Reuven, a yeshiva teacher (Avshalom Pollak), and they have four young children. Tzvia looks after the home economics and is also courteous to visitors to the cemetery who ask for her advice or want to use her bathroom, which is perhaps more hygienic than the toilets in every cemetery I’ve ever been to. Tzvia is a feminine figure who is defined by her womanly obedience to her duties as a wife and mother – which she seems to perform tranquilly, a kind of shadow of a smile on her face – and by her feminine frustration: her husband, who is a pale character in the movie, no longer desires her.

The plot trigger involves the lonely Tzvia, who likes to sit next to the grave of the poet Zelda (whose image was revealed so marvelously in David Perlov’s 1963 film “In Jerusalem”) and read from her work. Perhaps this is because Zelda symbolizes for her the possibility that a religiously observant woman can follow her own distinctive and inspiring path in the realm of faith. She discovers that at night, the graveyard in which she wanders is replete with materiality, rife with the activity of prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers. The frustrated Tzvia – her frustration is not only sexual – is drawn to this world. At first the denizens of the night treat her with hostility and derision, thinking she is motivated by voyeurism. But after Tzvia starts to bring them pots filled with food she prepared for her family, the relations between them change. That change is supposed to symbolize the transformation Tzvia undergoes. But her character is fashioned in such a basic, abstract way that the change, which leads the movie to its suggestive conclusion, nearly dissipates within the ostensibly artistic conception of the film.

Hidden drama

Because the transformation of which Kayam speaks in the quotation above remains hidden – meaning that the drama, too, remains hidden – the only concrete element in the movie is the cemetery. True, it is fraught with historical, mythical and national meanings, but those bent on uncovering them in Kayam’s film will have to dig deep into its ground. Another quote from the director will help us understand the disparity that exists in “Mountain” between thought and intention, and their realization. “I started spending time on the mountain, walking up and down it, and conversing with the different people that I met there: visitors, mourners, rabbis and also Abed, the Palestinian caretaker of the cemetery,” she says in one interview. And, in her director’s statement, “The mountain felt ‘timeless’ to me to the same degree that it is contemporary and concrete, and that feeling charted the making of the film.”

What of all this exists in the movie? The concreteness that Kayam mentions is there, but where is the “timelessness”? Does the fact that Tzvia, in her wanderings through the cemetery, occasionally meets Abed, a sociable Palestinian (Haitham Ibrahem Omari), and people who want to use her bathroom – and these are the only significant people we meet in the film apart from Tzvia and her family – say something about the site’s historical, religious and mythical importance? Does the reality to which Tzvia is exposed – which is shot in burning night shades, in contrast to the glaring whiteness of the rows of graves in the daytime – refer to any legend, any myth that counterpoises the spiritual with the material? If so, my education is too limited to identify it, nor does the film make it clear to me, other than by saying that Tzvia is caught between two worlds, between body and soul that is perhaps thirsting for a body. But the conflict that wells up within her as a result of this hovers above the movie, instead of being immersed within it.

And what about any sort of allusion to the city in which the story is set, Jerusalem – from which the film, with the exception of the Mount of Olives and the view from it to the other mount, the Temple Mount, is totally disconnected? And what about some sort of allusion to the social class and the cultural milieu to which Tzvia and her husband belong? Kayam’s film did not have to occupy itself with these matters. The disconnect symbolizes in some way the inner disconnect within which Tzvia lives in her narrow world – yet that world of long rows of graves is not narrow at all, if we heed the director’s words.

Above all else, “Mountain” is driven by an artistic conception, almost a fantasy of art, to which the filmmaker clings so closely that it trips her up. The artistic is a worthy goal, but for that goal to be realized, it demands less of an embrace than Kayam gives it in her first feature film. The talent here is manifest, but that talent requires artistic thought that must go further.

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