‘Monte’: Film Review | Venice 2016

A medieval peasant family challenges a mountain in Amir Nader’s metaphoric feature.

Set in medieval Italy amid the poorest of the poor, Monte slowly and inexorably builds to a metaphor about how furious determination can challenge even immense power. In direct line of descent from writer-director Amir Naderi’s great humanistic Iranian films — The Runner and Water, Wind, Dust – it shows the maverick filmmaker once again at the height of his expressive powers. Its stripped-down narrative and uncompromising repetitions will not be tolerable to everyone, but audiences willing to stick out the punishing but dazzling last half hour will walk away with a lot.

This is Naderi’s year. After the relative obscurity of his American films, made after he left Iran in the 1990’s, his work is finally being honored with international retrospectives. He received the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award at Venice (previous winners include James Franco and Brian De Palma), where Monte made its world premiere.

The Bottom Line

Powerfully expressive and unbearably angry.

Monte means mountain in Italian, and never was a title more suggestive. An enormous monolithic block of rock is the indisputable star of the story, and though its only dialogue is rolling thunder, it is never out of mind. Its dark mass rises up menacingly, never majestically, blocking all the sunlight from a narrow strip of land the local farmers try to plant and harvest. One extended family just gives up and moves out, leaving Nina (Claudia Potenza), her husband Agostino (Andrea Sartoretti) and their teenage son Giovanni alone to tend the graves of their ancestors.

The mountain’s ominous rumbling creates a symphony with the howling of wild animals, who slink into the graveyard at night, attracted by the scent of Nina and Agostino’s recently buried daughter. Their despair is only heightened by Agostino’s forays into a nearby village to barter trinkets for food; he is shunned as a pariah living under a curse. After he is called a heretic, he takes refuge in a church and finds himself unable to communicate with God.

These are tough folk and there is something admirable in their dogged determination bordering on obsession and masochism—a typical description of Naderi characters. Their only way out is through total commitment to remove the evil from their lives. Even when their sufferings increase to Biblical proportions, Nina never backs down from staying close to her roots and her starving family. But Agostino dissolves into fury against God and nature. Rebelling against his fate and the “damned mountain” that has ruined their lives, he embarks on a mad, Quixote struggle that initially reads like he’s lost his mind. Like the punishing treatment meted out to the idealistic hero of Naderi’s Japanese film Cut, the mountain is not about to let go without a fight, and the outcome seems assuredly in its favor.

The small cast is perfectly chosen and the production and costume design offer a fresh, low-key take on how the Middle Ages looked. Many shots have the timeless beauty of Italian paintings, which no doubt inspired the filmmakers.

But the force of Monte lies in the visceral, corporeal sensations of dirty, grimy, puny man vs. immovable rock. The stunning cinematography by D.P. Roberto Cimatti is so drained of color in the final scenes it could be mistaken for black and white. Cimatti, who cut his teeth in the Alps lighting Giorgio Diritti’s The Wind Blows Round, turns the peaks of Alto Adige into a hostile lunar landscape emanating the creepy feeling of a Tarkovsky film. Naderi’s editing is expressively, and impressively, precise.

Production companies: Zivago Media, Citrullo International, Cineric Inc in association with Cine Sud Promotion, Rai Cinema
Cast: Andrea Sartoretti, Claudia Potenza, Anna Bonaiuto, Zaccaria Zanghellini
Director, screenwriter, editor: Amir Naderi
Producers: Rino Sciarretta, Carlo S. Hintermann, Gerardo Panichi, Eric Nyari
Director of photography: Roberto Cimatti
Production designer: Daniele Frabetti
Costume designer: Monica Trappolini
World sales: Citrullo International
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
100 minutes