Behind The Mountains


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Behind The Mountains
"A magical realist tale which invites us to reassess what’s possible within the paradigms of science and Islam, to recognise the importance of entertaining wild ideas even as we see the danger of it."

“If you’d taken those pills, this wouldn’t have happened. Now it’s my daughter who’s on medication,” says his mother-in-law.

Rafik (Majd Mastoura) has just been released from prison after serving a four year sentence. We glimpse the cause of it briefly at the start: the abrupt episode of violence in which he smashed up his workplace, terrifying his colleagues. We also see an incident in the prison where he climbed up high and leapt from a fourth story window. There are scars on his face. Yassine (Walid Bouchhioua) is at school, his mother-in-law tells him. He’s doing well there. As for Yosr (Rania Agrebi), she doesn’t love him anymore – but Rafik has a plan. He will take both of them away, behind the mountains. He has something he needs to show them, and then they will understand.

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In his way, Rafik has all the qualities of a classical hero; he’s brave, he’s inspired, he’s questing for something that might benefit the whole of humankind, and he’s doing so against the odds. That’s not the vibe he puts across through most of this film, however. His intense self-belief simply won’t make room for any other concern; he easily loses sight of the needs of others. In some ways he’s a very ordinary man, not at all equipped to cope with what is happening to him. From the moment he takes Yassine out of school – with Yosr’s or her parents’ permission, and despite the frantic efforts of the teachers to stop him – one fears for the boy’s safety. Rafik’s singular vision does not permit him to see the risks inherent in leaving the boy alone on a mountainside or in other potentially hazardous situations.

Young Bouchhioua is very impressive in conveying the distress and inner conflict of a child out of his depth. Yassine is a sensible kid who understands the danger he’s in, but he can also see that his father’s life is at risk, and he tries to deal with each new situation as best he can as things get more and more out of control. A shepherd (Samer Bisharat) whom they meet along the way proves an unstable ally, easily caught up in Rafik’s myth-making, his face glowing with awe like a new disciple. Later, when they meet other people, the situation becomes even more disturbing. There is a constant threat of violence that will keep you on the edge of your seat. All the while, the character dynamics are beautifully observed, background stories full of intimate detail.

It is difficult to go into much more detail, even where it’s deserved (Selma Zghidi and Helmi Dridi both deserve praise for their performances and have wonderful chemistry together), without spoiling an experience which should be continually surprising for viewers, just as it is for its characters. To an extent, the subject matter is built around surprise, in that Rafik contends that for every advance humans make as a species, there will be somebody who has to go first. Perhaps that person is always perceived as insane. Interestingly, Rafik isn’t the only character in the story whose sanity has been called into question, and it’s the effect he has on others, as much as his own journey, which invites audiences to wonder.

A magical realist tale which invites us to reassess what’s possible within the paradigms of science and Islam, to recognise the importance of entertaining wild ideas even as we see the danger of it, Behind The Mountains feels very timely, offering hope and inspiration to people who feel trapped by the systems which limit their lives. As they drive out into the mountains, Rafik remarks to Yassine that they look like the spines on a dragon’s back, and when driving the other way, the dragon appears to be moving in a different direction. At its best, cinema can offer us a shift in perception.

Reviewed on: 01 Jun 2024
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The story of a man who violently breaks free from his banal environment, evading society with its principles, codes and institutions.

Director: Mohamed Ben Attia

Writer: Mohamed Ben Attia

Starring: Majd Mastoura, Walid Bouchhioua, Samer Bisharat, Selma Zghidi, Helmi Dridi, Wissem Belfharak

Year: 2023

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Tunisia, Belgium, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar


Muslim 2024

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