All external journeys are also internal journeys. This is the beauty of travel cinema, where a visit to a different place is a catalyst for a deep exploration of the self. Mariner of the Mountains is one of these films, to great effect. It is an atmospheric travelogue of filmmaker Karim Aïnouz’s first journey to Algeria, his father’s homeland. Algeria exists in his personal history, a place he was always supposed to go to – a place core to his identity – yet a place he is yet to visit in person. He travels to Algeria equipped with the weight of expectation, memory, the memory of his mother and his camera. What follows is a poetic, meditative tour of life full of evocative imagery and astute personal reflection.
As a piece of art, Mariner of the Mountains is testament to the importance of digital photography. While the film vs. digital debate still rages on, and film still has an almost indescribable beauty, the versatility of the digital cannot be denied. Films like this work because of that versatility, Aïnouz is able to capture fleeting moments effortless, is able to candidly capture life, and the digital aesthetic only adds to the travelogue basis of the film. Cameras are intrusive objects, film cameras especially so, the expediency with which Aïnouz can film here opens up beautiful and hitherto unreachable content to him. Yes, the camera still creates inherent artifice, but there is less of a divide.
There is a real spontaneity to this piece, it moves at the rhythm of observational poetry. Aïnouz is able to capture anything that links to his interior and then maps his perspective onto it. The result is an effortless weaving of past, present and future. It is a clear and emotive exploration of family dynamics, how they forged the filmmaker and their wider realities; it is also a political portrait, mapping social change from the perspective of the individual. This makes it very accessible as a political text, as the human core persistently grounds it. It is a reminder that all these wider social factors happen to people, and orbit around them.
The constant dialogue between the interior and the external is a core appeal here. The result is something deeply resonant. But, bewitching cinematography is also a highlight. The film exhibits such a strong eye, with excellent framing. This is, of course, aided by beautiful landscapes that let the country speak for itself (always tied back to the personal). However, the style is more than this. Aïnouz has this brilliant ability to capture images that feel spontaneous yet artistic. At no point does the work feel artificially artistic, managing to stay observational while maintaining real beauty.
This is a thoughtful, engaging and entrancing film. It is too easy to label films as poetic and meditative, but these terms exist to be given to works like Mariner of the Mountains. The effortless feel of the work really stands out. This feels like taking a stroll through memories, it is a film that wafts into the mind – or at least the imagery does – far after watching it. It is undeniably a work of impact and substance, and of emotional depth. But it is the beauty that really sticks with you, the ethereal atmosphere of a film that manages to be so intelligent while feeling so casual.