A medieval Job just can't catch a break in Amir Naderi's despairing, immaculately rendered, excruciatingly over-literal endurance test.
It’s a fable so ancient no one’s quite sure who first devised it, but the Grimm Brothers wrote of a bird that comes to sharpen its beak on a mountain every hundred years. When the mountain has worn down to nothing, the story goes, that will represent the first moment of eternity. It may only be 106 minutes long, but by the time the forbidding granite edifice of Amir Naderi’s titular mountain finally succumbs to years of assault from the human equivalent of this particularly determined bird, eternity feels like a very familiar concept. If you like your metaphors thuddingly literal (and literally thudding, with the whole final act unfolding to the grunting rhythm of a man bashing away at a cliff face with a mallet), the Iranian director’s “Monte” will prove a treat. The rest of us may find ourselves wondering, like the biblically unfortunate central character, just what we’ve done to deserve this.
The film at least looks extraordinary, with the harsh, elemental nature of its medieval mountainside setting captured in Roberto Cimatti’s painterly, desaturated, dun-paletted frames. And everything from Monica Trappolini’s raggedly stitched sackcloth costuming to the grime-smirched faces of the local urchins to the rough-hewn decor of the spartan interiors feels so authentic you can practically smell the Middle Ages, all woodsmoke, dank earth and superstition. Equally evocative is Tom Paul’s sound design, which combines unearthly, pterodactyl-like screeches from unseen animals with an ever-present thunderous rumble that seems to emanate from the mountain itself, giving its looming visual mass a sonic dimension. This is just as well, as the paucity of dialogue means that a lot of the film’s information is carried in the conversations between wind, rock and earth, or the sound of stone striking stone.
The mountain is home to a small collection of villagers who eke out a living in its shadow, with Agostino (the rather too hunky Andrea Sartoretti) and his family also the guardians of a makeshift hilltop graveyard wherein lie the bodies of his ancestors. But the sunless slopes are widely believed to be cursed, as the high proportion of new crosses in the graveyard attests, and Agostino’s neighbors move away, leaving him and his family even more isolated, and at the mercy of the magisterial mountain’s inscrutable but ceaselessly malevolent whims.
Things go from bad to worse for Agostino — no mean feat, considering the film begins with the burial of one of his children — as no one will buy his “accursed” goods, and he’s treated as a leper by the whispering, gossiping townsfolk. In desperation he attempts to sell their one possession of value: a hairpin belonging to his wife Nina (Claudia Potenza, displaying more soul-riven, agonized glances than a Louvre-full of Pietàs). But that gets him accused of thievery, and while he escapes the authorities, they take Nina and their teenage son Giovanni (Zac Zanghellini) away. Agostino is now truly alone, just him and the towering crag, and, not surprisingly, he goes mad, obsessed with the quixotic mission of bringing down the mountain that’s the source of all his woes.
It’s not entirely fair to say this final section is wholly monotonous. Sometimes Agostino moves to a different patch of rock. And at some point he is reunited first with his wife and then with his son, now a strapping young man. But long before they make the slightest dent in the pestilential peak, the endlessly repetitive blows from Agostino’s hammer will have shattered the enthusiasm of all but the most dedicated, or masochistic, of cinephiles.
Naderi is not afraid to challenge his audience, as anyone who rose to the occasion of his 2011 title “Cut” is aware, and the craft credentials “Monte” are so strong it could proudly be a portfolio piece for a number of below-the-line departments. Its ambitions are as colossal as the sinister, hulking star of the show, and its themes mighty ones of faith, God, man vs. nature and the repudiation of destiny. But the storytelling, which is characterized by Naderi’s frustrating habit of lingering on a look of agony or confusion but never giving us the reverse angle to tell us what’s being looked at, is utterly leaden, making “Monte” the kind of allegorical slog that Sisyphus himself might balk at and just decide to let the mountain win.