“MOUNTAIN”— A Visit to the Mount of Olives

“Mountain” (“Ha’har”)

A Visit to the Mount of Olives

Amos Lassen

The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is the oldest active Jewish cemetery in the world, it proved fertile soil for Yaelle Kayam’s imagination. She took a story from the Talmud about a rabbi who no longer desired his wife and moved it to the area. The cemetery on the Mount of Olives is ironic in that there is so much sadness in all of the beauty that is there and this is a personification of Tzvia (Shani Klein) who lives at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Separated from the cemetery by a wire fence (in accordance with Jewish law), she is the patient and frustrated wife of rabbi, Reuven (Avshalom Polak) and their four children. We are taken into the rhythms and rituals of religious life. There is a recurring shot in which we see Tzvia stretching into life while the call to prayer drifts through the window and her husband conducts the Shacharit prayers. We become aware of the boredom of her mundane life in every frame as the camera hovers behind her as she smokes a cigarette at the sink, or looking out across Jerusalem from the window of her home. As if this is not enough, her husband Reuven is no longer interested in her and fatigue has taken over the their lives.

Tzvia is dissatisfied both emotionally and physically at home and finds solace amidst the tombstones of the cemetery as she goes there to read the poetry of Israeli poet, Zelda. The book is old and battered and has obviously been read many times. One night, Tzvia who is reserved and a traditional woman meets a small community of pimps and prostitutes operating out of the cemetery and she forms a strange, silent bond with them. They allow her to sit and observe in exchange for home-cooked food. Suddenly, the routines previously presented begin to shift and change slightly.

We become aware of Tzvia’s shifting moods and mental states by subtle changes and adjustments to the look of the picture – colder colors in the home emphasize her changing moods and handheld camerawork seems to become more evident if and when her spirits and heart rate are raised. Yet, Tzvia remains largely inscrutable, and while Klein elicits great empathy with a woman eroded by the monotony of her life, her inner-self remains a mystery. Her actions themselves are left unknown during the end of the film and whatever impact they might have is elusive.

“Mountain” depicts the unlikely transformation of a married Orthodox Jewish woman who lives and works beside one of the holiest sites in the Middle East into a fully realized woman. The Mount of Olives that is located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem gets its name from the olive groves that once covered its slopes. The sprawling site has been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years, and holds approximately 150,000 graves. It is also the site for Christian worship, as several key events in Jesus Christ’s life, as relating in the Gospels, took place there. Ironically this hallowed ground is the backdrop of the film as a religious woman sees the seedy underside of Israeli life involving prostitutes and drug dealers.

We see the prototype religious woman who does all things to keep her home kosher, providing for her children and for her seemingly loveless husband ion Tzvia . Director Kayam has stated that the film was certainly not meant to ridicule gender roles within a religious family. It means to challenge the standard views of an indifferent marriage, and explore notions of female interiority and self-discovery. Having Tzvia and a religious woman was to make her come across as pure and to emphasize the stereotype of the religious woman.

“She is religious, but it comes more from my own experiences,” Kayam said. “The idea of having her religious was meant to make her appear more righteous, more pure. And it has more to do emphasize more of the archetype.

Tzvia is the mother of four kids. They recite their prayers before and after every meal, and are dropped off at the school bus to attend Yeshiva. She is married to a teacher named Reuven. Tzvia spends her days doing wifely chores inside and outside her home, which happens to be surrounded by the ancient cemetery spread out over the Mount of Olives. Reuven pays little attention to her or her female needs  and her stifling monotony gradually worsens and he is very lonely.

Tzvia begins to witness new and bizarre, even seedy scenarios, involving prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers, at the graveyard. These seamy elements affect her profoundly and bring her dead soul to life. She becomes a voyeur to an exotic world, a world which had long been completely foreign to her.

Even though the narrative is apolitical, the deliberate choice of having the film set on the Mount of Olives is radical. This is an honest portrait of the limits of orthodox religion in an effort to explore female interiority.

With a title like “Mountain”, there will be suspicions of it being a metaphor for jump and as we watch we ask ourselves about the vagueness that we see. The conflict within Tzvia 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. We certainly get a sense of frustrated expectations as we see that Reuven is losing interest in his wife. They do not really communicate and we know nothing about their history— the sparse dialogue leaves their history together a void. This is counterbalanced by lively family scenes and photographic sweeps whenever Tzvia leaves the confines of their home. People from the world outside of the Mountain (tourists, and a good-natured Palestinian groundskeeper, Abed [Haitham Ibrahem Omari]) remain at a cautious distance, until Tzvia sees a clique prostitutes and johns doing their after-hours business among the tombstones. The encounter ignites a curiosity within her, and soon she’s attempting a rapprochement with the lowlifes turning tricks just feets from her home.

I had to stop and wonder if Tzvia’s glimpses of the lurid, debased outside world are liberating unto themselves, or if the woman’s curiosity is a sad symptom of loneliness in an increasingly loveless marriage or even both of these. She tries to have a cigarette with one of the prostitutes, only to have the younger woman to harangue her worse than she could possibly have imagined. This is something of a confirmation that allows Tzvia to keep coming back, with home-cooked food as she seeks a kind of mute companionship with the underclass.

Despite the film’s obvious theme of the sacred versus the profane, 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 comes 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.

The issues that Tzvia faces are vague and the film withholds bigger connecting concepts that never come. Once again, I am amazed at how far Israeli film has come. There was a time (even when I lived in Israel) that it was almost impossible to get an Israeli to watch a movie made in Israel. That is definitely not true today.

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