An Orthodox Jewish woman living in a vast cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives struggles with her husband’s lack of interest in her in Yaelle Kayam’s subtle, handsome “Mountain.” Impressively balancing the predictable (has rat poison ever been used just on rodents?) with the unexpected, the first-time feature writer-director weaves a complex portrait of a constrained life, understanding that no one is fully knowable. Leaving satisfying room for conjecture, and graced with a breakthrough performance from Shani Klein, “Mountain” will easily climb festival peaks and could see a respectable international rollout.
Her name is Tzvia (Klein), or at least that’s what she tells a drunken prostitute one night, well into the drama — otherwise, no one ever utters her name. She’s mother of four, wife to Yeshiva teacher Reuven (Avshalom Pollak), and she spends her days with housework in their home surrounded by the ancient cemetery spread out over the Mount of Olives. A devout woman with her head always covered, Tzvia is starved for adult company, since Reuven’s job often keeps him away until past dinner time.
Two Hasidic women ring her bell after a funeral, asking if they can use her bathroom; their brief conversation allows the script to quickly convey background information in an organic way without coming across as didactic. Clearly Tzvia would like to move from this isolating locale and be a part of a community, but Reuven’s job is earning him ever-increasing recognition, and besides, he’s not paying attention to his wife’s needs on any level. Pushing their beds together doesn’t help, and about the only time she sees him now is when he’s performing early morning prayers.
Frustrated by the lack of company and tired of largely being cooped up inside all day, she strolls the cemetery; one night she sees a prostitute servicing a client. Another evening she takes a pair of binoculars and realizes there’s quite a business going on at one end, with several pimps overseeing a few alcoholic whores. When she’s discovered, the pimps rough her up, but the next night she brings them food — it’s a bizarre arrangement for everyone, yet they maintain a wary silence, allowing her to sit by and observe.
“Mountain” constantly upends expectation, turning Tzvia into an ever-more intriguing character without the pretense of getting inside her head and making her all-knowable. Since she’s a religious woman, it’s presumed that the tome she silently reads from in the cemetery is a prayer book: Instead, it’s poetry written by a woman buried there. Her fascination with the prostitutes and their work may seem unusual for an Orthodox woman, but Kayam is specifically forcing auds to question such assumptions: Why is it unusual for a woman, any woman, to be interested in sex?
Outside her family, the only regular human contact she has is with Abed (Haitham Ibrahem Omari), the Palestinian caretaker of the cemetery. He’s consistently courteous and respectful, while she’s self-conscious not only because he’s a man but also (it’s implied) because he’s Palestinian. He opens up to her at one moment about his own loveless marriage, yet she’s unable to consider him a kindred spirit. It’s easier, perhaps, to risk a hesitant association with a drunken prostitute, even though she’s humiliated by her.
Klein has an open, kindhearted face that effortlessly conveys sympathy of character; it’s impossible not to like her, especially when Itay Marom’s camera casts her in a naturally golden glow. Subtle shifts in lighting, from warm to a cooler white, effectively capture changes in mood, and the sense of place is expertly caught in both lensing and art direction. From the view of Al-Aqsa Mosque (the Temple Mount) through the kitchen window, to her daily awakening by the sound of the muezzin’s call, the pic ensures that viewers are reminded of where they are, in a no man’s land (or rather, a dead man’s land) caught between multiple religions. Equally palpable, via such images as a striking nighttime shot of Tzvia holding a flashlight and walking up the tomb-filled hillside, to the cavern-like interiors of the family home, “Mountain” conveys the sense of a living woman entombed.