Erin Kolirin’s third feature, “Beyond the Mountains and Hills,” is his most profound film yet, but also the most problematic. Profound because he’s exploring the mixed feelings of so many Israelis who try to rationalize their sense of personal identity against the dysfunction of the state: What does it mean to be a good person — or rather, to try to be a good person — in a society that doesn’t reward good behavior? Problems come in the unbalanced way he expresses this idea, via a family uncertain of what they’re looking for as they fall apart at the seams. It also doesn’t help that the only Arabs in the film are terrorists or potential rapists. Certain to generate much heated discussion at home and abroad, “Beyond” is likely to see modest international sales.
Working in the same quasi-deadpan manner as “The Exchange” and, to some extent, “The Band’s Visit,” Kolirin plays with concepts of physical and emotional distance in practically every scene, moving his characters in a way that calls attention to their placement in the frame and then eliminating the fourth wall entirely. He’s made an angry, emotional film by sucking out the air and obliging audiences to confront their own complicity, lulling us with pop songs that create a sense of commonality and communion but then making us uncomfortable by forcing the viewer to challenge our role in the malignant status quo. The film works because it won’t allow for a neutral answer — in fact, Kolirin rightly sees neutrality as a dangerous evasion — yet the story’s imbalance distracts from the very issues it addresses.
Lieutenant-Colonel David Greenbaum (Alon Pdut) retires from the army, going from being a leader of men to just another guy looking for a job. He chooses to try selling through a dietary supplement franchise, but needs the inspiration of a shark’s motivational sales pitch to make him see that in an unfair world, you’ve sometimes got to do bad things to make the deals. Few will fail to recognize the pointed but unspoken comparison with Israel itself.
David’s wife Rina (Shiree Nadav-Naor) teaches literature in high school, where some of the boys think of her in MILF terms, particularly smoldering Evyatar (Yoav Rothman), who knows how to fix his stare and set his jaw to project the maximum amount of sexual tension. The frisson between these two is far more potent than anything between David and Rina, whose coupling is possibly the most unconvincing part of the film since they have nothing in common and don’t ever seem to have either.
There are two Greenbaum kids: son Omri (Noam Imber) and daughter Yifat (Mili Eshet), the film’s real protagonist. Yifat is something of an activist, the kind of person who sees the inequities around her yet retains a hesitant fear of fully engaging with the causes she believes in, largely because it’s so difficult to divest from the tacit propaganda inherent in growing up Israeli. When she meets Ayman (Mohamed Name) late at night at the foot of the hill that separates the Jewish side from the Arab, he tries to convince her to hang out together, but Yifat isn’t comfortable with the idea (and Kolirin shoots the scene to clearly suggest that Ayman’s intentions are unlikely to be honorable) so she goes home.
Later that night, David, in frustrated rage at his sudden lack of power, blindly fires his pistol into the darkness; he doesn’t realize he’s killed Ayman. Unaware of how her acquaintance died, Yifat raises funds for his widow and goes to the house of mourning, where she meets Imad (Ala Dakka), a charismatic friend of the deceased whose interest in the teenager is also unlikely to be honorable.
It’s unfortunate that none of the Greenbaums have much intelligence: they might have book learning, but their very stupid actions make them frustrating characters. Disconnected from each other, they only think of themselves except for Yifat, who thinks in altruistic terms but keeps second-guessing her actions: she wants to extend a hand to her Arab neighbors, she listens to Lebanese singer Fairuz, she wears a keffiyeh, and yet she can’t overcome the fear that maybe Arab motivations aren’t as pure as her own. And indeed, in Kolirin’s script they are not, which is an unfortunate choice, especially since the crux of the movie is to remove any sense of comfort we derive from telling ourselves that we’re “good people” when it merely serves as an excuse for unethical behavior.
The physical locations used are ideal for conveying the sense of separation, even without actual walls: the Greenbaums live on one side of a barren, unlit hill, the Arabs on the other, with a no-man’s land between them where encounters are possible but always on uneven terms. Is there a place “beyond the mountains”? The film implies that such a location is the very definition of “terra incognita.”
Kolirin cleverly choreographs his characters in and out of the frame in a way that captures our attention, so just when the viewer focuses on someone mid-range, another person appears close up. The director, working again with d.p. Shai Goldman, wants his audience to be aware of the artificiality of both the performances as well as cinema itself, in order to involve us in the discussion. His use of songs forms another key element since they’re the only things that bring people together, and yet their lyrics (such as “this is my land”) very much convey a distinction between us and them.