(photo credit: PR)
Shani Klein is a young actress who burst onto the Israeli movie scene as the humorless commander in Zero Motivation, and she has her second major role in Yaelle Kayam’s Mountain. Klein is on screen virtually every moment of the movie, and just as she was utterly convincing as the ambitious but awkward soldier in Zero, here she is just as compelling as a lonely Orthodox married woman.
What connects these two characters is their likability. Klein gives both of these heroines, each of whom might seem to be remote from the audience, a humanity and appeal. Although in Mountain her character is quiet, she draws you in with the strength of her presence. She shows the heroine’s constantly shifting sense of herself, as well as her changing attitudes toward her husband, her children, her religious beliefs, her surroundings and her plus-size body. At times she is proud and confident, at other times angry or uncertain.
Like Zvia, the character she plays, the movie’s mood shifts, sometimes abruptly, as it tells her story. Zvia lives with her husband and young children in a small house in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives. The location is both elevating and isolating. She can see the Temple Mount from her window as she washes the dishes, and she often awakens to the muezzin’s call. In an early scene, she explains to two women who have just attended a funeral and have stopped in to use her bathroom that she and her family have moved into this house so that there would be a Jewish presence in the area. “We’re the pinat chai” (in English, “the petting zoo,” but in Hebrew it literally means “the live corner), she tells the stunned women, showing that she has a sense of humor about, as well as an affection for, her unusual home.
While she takes pride in her home, her life is lonely. Her husband, Reuven (Avshalom Polak), is a devoted teacher at a yeshiva, who is honored when the head of the school asks him to teach Torah in a prison two nights a week. As it is, he is often late and is distant even when he is with her. While she is passionate and craves physical contact with him, he is barely interested in sex.
Hungry for friendship, Zvia wanders the cemetery during the day and has brief chats with visitors and workers. She smokes cigarettes with a Palestinian gravedigger (Hitham Omari, who played the militia leader in Bethlehem), but when he tells her that his marriage is loveless, she changes the subject. A Korean translator visits the grave of Zelda, the poet, and recites a poem for her in Korean.
But when Zvia starts going out at night, her life gets more complicated. Wandering among the graves, she stumbles upon a part of the cemetery where pimps bring prostitutes and their customers. At first, the pimps threaten her when they see her.
But then she starts bringing pots of food for them and the prostitutes, for reasons that don’t make sense – to her or to them.
Her fascination with this sexually-charged underworld eventually leads her in a dangerous direction.
The set-up of the movie and Zvia’s nocturnal wanderings work beautifully. But to give shape to the episodic structure, the writer/ director has woven a heavily foreshadowed act of violence into the plot. This violence is strained, a deus ex machina that brings the movie to a less than satisfying conclusion.
But the earlier parts of the film, combined with the beautiful, atmospheric photography and Klein’s magnificent work in the lead, make Mountain worth seeing. Kayam has created a memorable, multi-layered character for whom she obviously has great affection, a feeling the audience will share.