This week I saw Mountain at the Leeds International Film festival. It’s a jaw-dropping experience, a portrayal of the ineffable beauty of these towering rock and granite worlds, and of the spectacular physical feats (some) humans attempt – and often pull off – in their quest to master them. Sublime photography, soaring music and a probing narrative – along with some frankly suicidal extreme sport fanatics. Riveting. And poses deeper questions too.
As narrator William Dafoe says, it’s largely since, in the western world at least, our lives have become so confined, circumscribed and (relatively) risk free, that we’ve sought out the untrammeled beauty and danger of wild spaces – mountains being a chief embodiment. Our spirit needs them.
For some, this involves serious daredevilry. “You never feel so alive, knowing that any minute, you could die”, intones the narrator, laconically. Sequences of human aerial manoeuvres in this craggy, vertiginous playground are heart in the mouth stuff. A climber scaling spider-like up invisible rope, or springing across a precipitous drop to grab a ledge with bare hands. Snow-boarder tracing angular poses in dazzling snapshots of mid-air magic. A trio of paraglide skiers skimming snow-clad outcrops with balletic grace, canopies billowing behind, while another flees swift snapping avalanche – in turn pursuing a hit of adrenalin and fear. Maestros of the mountains all.
Such aerial artistry gives way to sobering reflection on the inevitable crowd pull and commercialisation of iconic Everest – “no longer exploring, but queueing”. But such misgivings are set in the wider panorama of human-mountain history. Mountains occupy ‘deep time’; there before we were dreamt of, they’ll be there when we’re gone – indifferent to us, seeking neither our pleasure nor harm. The tendency to personify them itself intriguing, as is our attraction to such vast venerability, hinting at our oftentimes dimly apprehended sense of eternity.
In contemporary western culture, the ‘awe fix’ people get from such natural marvels is arguably one of the closest things to ‘worship’ – revelling in what is evidently of great worth. Alongside a universal ache for transcendence and ecstasy. Blue Planet II currently on BBC TV induces comparable astonishment. Nature’s spectacles have the merits of being physically tangible, and inviting rather than imposing.
But is nature in itself enough to satisfy the human soul – or does it only take us so far? Faith contends that the reservoir of the human spirit ultimately seeks a yet richer filling. Nature’s beauty and mystery beckon deeper. The brute reality of wind-whipped mountains, treacherous seas and the cold indifferent vastness of space might on their own induce melancholy, or despair. But the revelations of faith whisper this isn’t the whole story, that in the deep heart of things there is intimacy, and I am loved.
A mere three hundred years ago, we’re told, mountains were shunned – a perilous world in an age which had its daily fill of hardship and danger. In our secular age, the interior world and its vistas may be similarly neglected. Though ‘spiritual’ paths of a sort are sometimes ventured upon, vast underlying mysteries of origin, purpose and ultimate Love can easily be ignored or hidden away in boxes dismissively marked ‘religion’ or ‘deity’ – along with the tools of revelation (bible anyone?) afforded for their exploration. The religious believer, in turn, sometimes needs to be challenged to ‘give up the glib’ and embark upon a wilder understanding of the God who underpins nature’s harshness, and its beauty. A film such as this can stir both kinds of hunger.