MOUNTAIN — Review by Cate Marquis

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Mountain starts in a different way from most films about mountains and their majesty. Instead of opening with mountains, we see black and white images of an orchestra tuning up and actor Willem Dafoe preparing to deliver his narration as the opening credits roll. Then there is a brief quote, “Those who dance are considered mad by those who cannot hear the music,” and the mountains make their entrance. Perhaps that opening quote describes those who risk all just to climb the planet’s highest peaks. Continue reading…

Those peaks, and mankind’s relationship with them, are the subject of Jennifer Peedom’s visually-soaring documentary Mountain. Just as the musicians start to play, we cut to views of those mountains, in the kind of aerial shots that have to bring a gasp to any viewer.

That breathtaking aerial photography is primarily by Anson Fogel but the film also includes archival footage, shots from other films about mountains and mountaineering, and Go-Pro footage from climbers, skiers, and extreme sport athletes. Among the archival footage is one of very early 20th century tourists, hiking up mountains perhaps in Yosemite.

At least we might guess it is Yosemite but we don’t know because the film does not tell us. Mountain is more a meditation on mountains and their place in human imagination than a fact-filled exploration of mountaineering. Willem Dafoe reads contemplative prose by Robert MacFarlane, which is more personal thoughts on mountains and people’s attitudes towards them, rather than a detailed history. While Dafoe narrates in a soothing tone, the Australian Chamber Orchestra plays a mostly classical score that includes Vivaldi, Beethoven and Grieg, as well as composisions by Richard Tognetti.

That best sums up the experience of watching Mountain, soaring, dizzying photography of mountains, sometimes with people scaling them, while Dafoe recites thoughtful prose and the orchestra plays stirring music.

We get shots of unnamed mountains with people free climbing, others of Buddhists monks and monasteries in Himalayas. The narration discusses how mountains have gone from being regarded throughout most of human history as obstacles, dangers to be avoided, or places of “gods and monsters” In more recent centuries, mountains have become symbols of wildness and natural beauty, as source of adventure and exploration. The film focuses on how the conquest of Everest was a turning point in the popular public view of mountains, As the camera skims over jagged, snowy peaks, Dafoe discusses how mountains went from places of danger to be avoided or places of the sacred, to playgrounds to enjoy vanishing wildness or places to indulge an impulse towards risk.

The gorgeous visuals takes us to mountains across the globe, from the Andes to the Alps, the Rockies to the Himalayas. Yet no mountain ranges are directly named and the only famous peak mentioned is Everest. Likewise, the human climbers, skiers and extreme mountain sports athletes are anonymous, although they are listed in the credits. Instead, it is all about the mountains themselves, and their stern grandeur.

Mountain is the kind of film best seen on a big screening, an experience that is both exhilarating and relaxing, like the mountains it celebrates.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.