As the titles from his filmography – Life Between the Waters (2017), The Forgotten Mountain (Mali i Harrum, 2018) and Encounter in the Air (2019) – suggest, Albanian writer/director Ardit Sadiku is an auteur of the elements. His sophomore feature opens with a spectacular vista of the sublime, in a montage of aerials revealing cloud-girt mountains and the ravine below and between them. This remote location (shot in Theth) perfectly illustrates, if you will excuse the pathetic fallacy, the patience of nature – for the beauty of these towering rock faces has been forged, ever so gradually, by the waters that still rush through, visibly and audibly, to create, via the piecemeal process of erosion, the valley that offsets and defines them. This is a place where change is slow, but constant – a dynamic highlighted by the contrast between the massive solidity of the rocks, and the noisy flux of the river. It will also form the resonant backdrop to a very human drama.
Into the valley drive Lorenc (Agron Shala), his wife Ema (Fatlume Bunjaku) and her father Rikard (Xhevat Qorraj, who is like a morose Billy Connolly). 72 years old and ailing, Rikard has had his whole life upended. Marta (Ikbale Qena), his wife of some fifty years, recently died after a long, debilitating illness, and his son Anton swindled him out of his own urban home – and so now his daughter and son-in-law are taking the depressed old man out to their cottage in the wilderness for a change of scene and hopefully of mood. “How much longer?”, are Rikard’s first words in the film. “Be patient, we’ll get there,” Lorenc replies (later, discussing the difficulties in having children, Rikard will use a similar sentiment to reassure Lorenc: “With patience, everything is achievable.”). Yet Rikard himself is not patient. Down on his luck and overwhelmed with feelings of loss, betrayal and despair, he longs not just to finish this bumpy car ride, but also to reach a more final destination as quickly as possible, seeing no good reason to continue living.
Ema too is impatient. She wants to have a baby, through a programme of fertility treatment, before it is too late, whereas Lorenc would rather wait till their financial situation is less precarious. “We have plenty of time,” Lorenc reassures her, but Ema knows that her biological clock is ticking, and no longer wishes to put things on hold. Lorenc’s resistance to change, and Ema’s rush towards it, reflect the clash between stone and water outside. They will also drive Ema into the arms of their neighbour Albani (Kastriot Shehi). Meanwhile Rikard, all at once ‘restless’ and arrested in his apocalyptic thoughts, cannot quite decide whether to stay or to go. On his solitary walks in contemplation of a suicidal exit, he will keep encountering a local resident, the ageing widow Diella (Merita Gjyriqi), who might just represent a good reason for him to hang around – but then the ghost of his wife also beckons.
“This is the richest place on Earth,” says the local priest (Agron Dizdari), pointing to the mountains beyond in an attempt to comfort the gloomy Rikard. “Because”, the priest goes on, “there are books that were never written, unfinished paintings, music that was never played, visions that never turned into reality. Every day that goes by we get closer, closer and closer.” Here landscape is not a fixed stage on which players perform, but a place full of potential, capable of yielding new treasures to those who are patient enough to see, and adapt to, its ever-unfolding transformations. And so The Forgotten Mountain takes a slow, steady approach to its characters and their dilemmas, playing them out with the flowing river or lofty mountains in the background, and to the sounds not of an orchestral score, but of nature itself. The ephemerality of these human experiences is set against a wider frame of perspective, where time operates on a different scale, and where all mortality’s petty frictions and momentary preoccupations are made to seem part of a bigger elemental picture. Accordingly the film’s pace is also somewhat glacial – but if it takes its time, it is also taking us somewhere ultimately rich and strange beyond the confines of its own naturalism.
© Anton Bitel