Mohamed Ben Attia's "Oura El Jbel" ('Behind the Mountains")

BEHIND THE MOUNTAINS Venice Review: A Literal and Metaphorical Struggle for Mental Liberation

“Behind the Mountains,” directed by Mohamed Ben Attia, is a poignant exploration of a man’s journey to find meaning and freedom in a world that often feels confining and predetermined. The film follows Rafik, who, after a four-year stint in prison, is driven by an insatiable desire to show his son an extraordinary discovery behind the mountains. This narrative, set against the breathtaking landscapes of Tunisia, is both a literal and metaphorical journey, delving deep into the psyche of its protagonist.

Ben Attia’s vision is clear and profound. Rafik’s journey serves as a metaphor for the struggles faced by those grappling with mental health issues in a society that often misunderstands or stigmatizes them. Rafik is not just a character but a symbol of rebellion against societal norms.

Set against the breathtaking landscapes of Tunisia, Rafik’s journey is fraught with challenges, including encounters with a peculiar shepherd and the looming threat of law enforcement. He isn’t bound by intellectualism or any particular ideology. He struggles to articulate his worldview, but his actions are fueled by an intense, almost primal urge. Seemingly irrational, they are a manifestation of a deep-seated need to break free from the mundane and experience the extraordinary, in a nation grappling with its own contradictions, in a world that often feels nonsensical. Hence the story as metaphor.

The mountains in the title can be seen as the towering challenges and obstacles faced by those struggling with mental illnesses, and Rafik’s journey behind them symbolizes the journey toward ultimately, healing.

Historically, mental health has been a stigmatized topic in many parts of the Arab world, including Tunisia. The societal norms often prioritize outward appearances and family honor over individual well-being, leading many to suffer in silence. Although this issue is not exclusive to this region. Many cultures and societies worldwide wrestle with similar challenges related to understanding and acceptance.

The film’s element of Rafik’s ability to float, albeit with difficulty, is emblematic of this desire for liberation. It’s not the graceful flight of superheroes but a visceral struggle against gravity, mirroring Rafik’s internal battles.

Drawing comparisons to Ben Attia’s past films, such as “Hedi” (2016) and “Dear Son” (2018), there’s a recurring theme of individuals contending with broader expectations and personal desires. In “Hedi,” the titular character is caught between his mother’s wishes and his own desires, much like Rafik’s internal conflict in “Behind the Mountains.” Similarly, “Dear Son” delves into a father’s quest to understand his son’s choices, echoing the father-son dynamic present in this film. With mental health at its core, “Behind the Mountains” is a continuation of his exploration of these themes.

The performances in the film are compelling, with Majd Mastoura’s portrayal of Rafik capturing the essence of a man at odds with the world around him. Mastoura also starred in Ben Attia’s “Hedi.” Meanwhile, young Walid Bouchhioua, as Yassine, the son, offers a raw portrayal of a child caught in the whirlwind of his father’s ambitions, reflecting the innocence and confusion of youth.

“Behind the Mountains” is not just a film but a reflection of society’s complexities. It ultimately challenges viewers to question social norms, mental health, and the very essence of freedom. Its compelling narrative, stellar performances, and thought-provoking themes are a credit to Ben Attia’s prowess as a filmmaker and his ability to craft stories that resonate universally.

“Behind the Mountains” made its world premiere as part of the Horizons Section of the 2023 Venice International Film Festival.

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