Title any movie Mountain and you’re courting suspicions of lofty allegorical import from the jump. Indeed, much of the experience of watching Yaelle Kayam’s debut feature consists of asking whether the psychodrama lives up to its parable-like vagueness. The film’s heroine, Tzvia (Shani Klein), lives with her withdrawn Yeshiva teacher husband, Reuven (Avshalom Pollak), and their children within a cave-like dwelling in Jerusalem’s sloping Mount of Olives, dotted above by approximately 70,000 tombs. The conflict within Klein’s character is introduced early in the film, when she casually describes her home as a “petting zoo” to a group of Orthodox women passing by—one of many self-conscious moments that doesn’t land as intended.
It’s no stretch to call this a film about frustrated expectations, sexual or otherwise. Reuven is losing interest in his wife, but the sparse dialogue leaves their history together a void—counterbalanced by lively family scenes and sweeps of ambient texture whenever Tzvia leaves the confines of their home. People from the world outside the Mount—mostly tourists, and a good-natured Palestinian groundskeeper, Abed (Haitham Ibrahem Omari)—are kept at a cautious distance, until Tzvia witnesses a clique of sex workers and johns doing their after-hours business among the tombstones. The encounter sparks an inexplicable curiosity within her, and soon she’s attempting a rapprochement with the ostensible lowlifes turning tricks feet from her home.
Based on what came beforehand, one has to ask if Tzvia’s glimpses of the lurid, debased outside world are liberating unto themselves, or if the woman’s curiosity is a warped symptom of loneliness in an increasingly loveless marriage. She tries to have a cigarette with one of the prostitutes, only for the younger woman to harangue her worse than she could possibly have imagined. It’s a confirmation of sorts, a trial by fire that allows the wife to keep coming back, buckets of home-cooked food in tow, seeking a kind of mute companionship with the underclass. (The film does little to challenge the notion that these people are lowlifes, but this isn’t their story.)
Despite the film’s obvious thematic meditation on the sacred versus the profane, Kayam hasn’t made a kitchen-sink polemic. If underwhelming, Tzvia’s life has pleasures and monotonies all its own; her four young children make for the culture of a small colony unto itself, and one of the more incisive family details arrives when Tzvia has to tell her husband that their oldest daughter is merely pretending to be obedient when he’s around, because he’s not around often enough. Praise is merited, too, by the film’s clarity of choreography, willingness to surprise in small increments, and frankness about its protagonist’s un-Hollywood body.
Even so, only a viewer’s patience will dictate how much of this feels like never-ending setup. The issues facing Tzivia are vague enough to be explored in any number of milieus, but looking to this film as a fable about Orthodox Judaism specifically tends to yield diminishing returns. The film is withholding to the point that viewers will inevitably anticipate evidence of bigger connecting concepts, but it refuses to satisfy this expectation. It’s far more frustrating as a narrative with demands to be made of its characters’ decisions than as a landscape portrait, using its camera to pick out incisive glimpses at a sparse, beautiful, and symbolically spring-loaded environment.