A whiff of pretentiousness fills the air as Mountain opens with black-and-white footage of a stage tech tuning a piano in a concert hall, a musician warming up a cello, and narrator Willem Dafoe, sporting headphones, settling behind a microphone. Against a dissonant tremolo, a stark black screen displays the unattributed epigraph, "Those who dance are considered mad by those who cannot hear the music."
Not a good sign.
But then then come the mountains.
Against a washed-out, monochromatic mountainside, a red dot is visible. Presumably a climber. The camera slowly glides in, then suddenly cuts to a shot from almost directly above the figure, peering down, past his head and shoulders, toward the vast chasm beneath as he slowly reaches out, feeling for a grip in the sheer rock. No ropes. No harness. Just a pair of athletic shoes and a thin layer of chalk on his bare hands.
It's a stunning, vertiginous minute and a half, and nothing else in the film will match it. But several moments will come close.
Australian director Jennifer Peedom, whose 2015 “Sherpa” documented the commodification and exploitation of indigenous peoples in service of the Everest trade, here teams up with the Australian Chamber Orchestra for something more akin to a tone poem than a standard documentary. Set to a range of classical chestnuts (Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King") as well as brief original passages by ACO conductor / composer Richard Tognetti, Peedom offers impressive footage of intrepid mountain climbers, as well as base jumpers, freestyle skiers, snow-boarders, and para-bikers.
The real star of this effort, however, is cinematographer and professional climber Renan Ozturk, who makes impressive use of the most current drone and helicopter cam technology to obtain truly remarkable footage of activities never before captured so closely or vividly. Frustratingly, Peedom eschews subtitles identifying the peaks, locales, and climbers on screen, inadvertently creating a distraction in her determination to avoid them.
Dafoe's brief narrative interjections suggest the film's historical and philosophical focus: When, and why, did we stop fearing these foreboding regions and find ourselves, instead, drawn to conquer them?
The narration is drawn from British writer Robert Macfarlane's 2003 historical reflection “Mountains of the Mind” and includes such blanket statements as, "Three centuries ago, risking one's life to climb a mountain would have been considered tantamount to lunacy," and, "During the second half of the 1700s, however, people started for the first time to travel to mountains."
It quickly becomes clear that "we" and "people" refer solely to westerners, certainly not the ancient cultures that have inhabited mountainous regions the world over for centuries. Despite the occasional shot of a Sherpa village or eastern religious temple for color, the film's focus stays firmly on the western interlopers.
Even at a brief 74 minutes, an overreliance on time-lapse shots of nightfall and slow zooms from wide vistas to a tiny human figure pinned, like an insect, to a cliff face suggest that the filmmakers have run out of new things to show. And Dafoe's florid pronouncements, such as ”They watched us arrive. They will watch us leave," suggest that no real answers to the film's ruminative questions will be forthcoming.