Eye-popping visuals are the chief selling point of “Mountain,” a documentary by Jennifer Peedom that celebrates the majesty of high peaks while exhibiting a healthy skepticism about man’s impact on them. The film is an exhilarating ride, though even at only a bit over an hour the exhilaration can feel a mite overextended.
The film begins by introducing two major behind-the-screen participants in the enterprise: Willem Dafoe, who pronounces himself ready to start reading the narration, drawn by Peedom and Robert Macfarlane from his ruminative book “Mountains of the Mind,” and the members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who will accompany the images with music written by conductor Richard Tognetti as well as substantial excerpts from Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schubert, Pärt and other classical composers.
While acknowledging the importance of those aural elements, however, it’s the visual side of “Mountains” that is undeniably its centerpiece. After some establishing shots of rock-climbers scaling impossible cliffs, it’s presented in a few virtual chapters. The first recalls how, until the twentieth century, mountains were looked upon not as inviting but as dangerous obstacles to be avoided at almost any cost. Their remoteness and inaccessibility were understood as warnings to stay away.
After the turn of the century, however, attitudes changed, and the challenge of conquering the formerly unreachable peaks beckoned adventurers who often staked their very lives on overcoming them, a development the makers connect with the increased urbanization of society and a concomitant decline in opportunities to excel physically. Initial encounters were only for the most intrepid, but eventually tourists began to arrive, though at first the activities they engaged in were of a genteel, comparatively non-rigorous sort.
Over the course of the century, however, that changed, and Peedom goes on to offer montages of not just rock-climbers but skiers, snowboarders, mountain bicyclists, wingsuiters and others who test themselves with the most demanding of mountain pursuits—including tightrope-walking from peak to peak—in a kind of dare against the possibility of death. As for climbers who trek up the best-known mountains like Everest, she shows how they have grown from a trickle to an army who jostle with one another in long lines of thrill-seekers, scenes that contrast markedly with occasional insertions of life in a serene mountaintop monastery. What had once been a rarity has become almost comically commonplace.
Then in its latter stages the film reverts to less crowded shots of the mountains, including one remarkable time-lapse sequence of snowy ground heaving up and down as though it was a living thing.
The cinematography is credited to Renan Ozturk, although the final credits include the names of a large number of cameramen, whose efforts across the globe have been melded by editors Christian Gazal and Scott Gray into a whole that is not without some repetitiveness but periodically offers yet another astonishing vista.
Perhaps “Mountain” will encourage some in the audience to become part of the ever-increasing number of people who want to experience the mountain air in situ. But it also provides a bracing view of the heights for those who prefer to see them from the comfort of a nice, immobile chair as well.