A hodgepodge of home invasion tropes, a father-son bonding tale and an odd exploration of fantasy in an otherwise realistic world, Behind The Mountains’ (Mohamed Ben Attia, 2023) execution rarely meets its ambition. Telling the type of outcast story that begs for heart-rending, edge-of-year seat construction, its elevated thriller aesthetic rarely gripped or moved me.
Attia shrouds his hero in mystery. Rafik (Majd Mastoura) is an otherwise normal-seeming man who, one day, simply loses it; destroying his workplace in a spasm of sudden, violent rage. We never learn the reason for his anger, but it already establishes him as an outsider in mainstream Tunisian society. After four years of prison, he is keen to reconnect with his son Yassine (Walid Bouchhioua), even though he seems unfit for fatherhood. In powerful, uncomfortable scenes, he effectively kidnaps and takes him to the mountains. He has to show him something.
He can fly.
Perhaps due to some budgetary concerns, we are never quite confronted with the magic of flight. Either some sleight-of-hand trickery has to be involved — which might work in a horror — or it happens off-screen, or when it does happen, it looks a little corny. Nonetheless, these moments allow Rafik to somewhat justify his erratic behaviour; after all, if he can fly — when everyone else says that it’s impossible — perhaps the rest of society is wrong. It’s a potent metaphor, but I have to admit, I’m not quite sure what it’s a metaphor for.
Picking up a silent farmer along the way, the unlikely trio soon find themselves under pursuit by the authorities, flirting with the thriller genre while never really reaching the levels of suspense the genre deserves. It’s all just a bit disappointing. Underwhelming.
It’s a shame as I think Ben Attia is a good director. I have fond memories of watching Hedi (2016) at the Berlinale over seven years ago. He has a particular knack for constructing characters and giving them specific traits that illuminate their wider feelings and desires. Here we have another story of someone bristling up against wider societal mores, but the story runs out of road pretty fast, stalling considerably in the second half as it turns into a not-so-tense domestic shocker.
Lacking the manipulation of space that makes this kind of genre pop, as well as slowing down a story that felt more attuned to grand vistas and epic gestures, it constricts the story just when it should be expanding. For some reason, it reminded me of the second half of the overreaching Beau Is Afraid (Ari Aster, 2023), which promised picaresque and then tortured us with a never-ending middle hour of Nathan Lane refusing to let our eponymous hero leave the house. Also like Beau Is Afraid, it’s a bold gamble from a respected director who could’ve benefited from a more critical production team. But this is a far less provocative work — a hard one to have strong feelings about either way. Hard to write anything conclusive about.