Superbored? You know who you are. If you’re ever feeling that way on a Friday or Saturday night, and looking for something to stir your heart and mind, then once a month check out something called the Mountain Shadow Film Society at the Walnut Creek Library. A year or so ago a local businessman named John Bennison had the idea of bringing to the east bay films that might once have been shown at the late, lamented Pleasant Hill Dome theater. Now he brings gems from all over the world: films that get shown at film festivals, that otherwise barely get distributed in this country.
The latest such film he showcased was Virgin Mountain, an Icelandic feature about a quiet, forty-something man whose friendship with a little girl and romance with a woman bring him out of his shell. For a while, anyway.
We meet Fusi, an overweight, seemingly modest man, as he hovers over a large model replica of a World War II battle in Egypt. He is arranging miniature figures—tanks and soldiers—that he has lovingly hand-crafted or painted alongside his best friend, a similarly reclusive, albeit more curmudgeonly man, who shoos away kids that show an interest in the model. “This is not a game,” Fusi’s friend rebukes them. Later, he and Fusi smoke weed together, observe without emotion their lack of female company, and lose consciousness. Fusi lives with his mother and her lover-of-the-moment, a man who encourages Fusi to show interest in the internet—either in porn or online dating, it is implied. Fusi sees his mother having sex with this man and turns away, not so much embarrassed or disgusted as merely stolid, as if sex was not and would never be a part of his world.
His male co-workers (he loads luggage at an airport) intuit his asexuality. They tease and later bully him, exhibiting not just homophobia, but a more basic revulsion towards men who don’t conform to a traditional sex role. We are reminded that for men in particular, or between men, deviant sexual behavior is actually not as shameful as not being sexual at all. A sympathetic boss tries to support him against the bullies, but Fusi conforms to social rules in at least one respect: he won’t narc.
A lonely eight-year old girl knocks on his door on his day off. She is superbored, inquisitive and non-judgmental, the way eight-year old girls are, I guess. Through her interest, we learn that the war model depicts the first battle the allies won in World War II. The full significance of that tidbit remains lost on me, but the purpose of his play is clear: Fusi is frozen as a latency age child, devoid of a father, no less refusing of growth than the surrealist main character of Grass’ The Tin Drum. Unfortunately, the bond with the little girl is short-lived. Thinking as a same-aged child, he takes the girl (at her request) on an ill-advised ride in his truck. When they return to their shared apartment building, a police car is predictably waiting for them, as well as an irate father who insinuates perversion in Fusi, thus he is arrested. Fortunately, a truly depressing path for this story is averted when a psychiatrist observes Fusi’s essential innocence, so he is released from the police station, though he is later ostracized by his neighbors.
Prior to this (or sort of interwoven), at the behest of his mother and her partner, Fusi reluctantly attends a dance class, or rather he sits in his truck, listening to thrash metal on his radio, resolved to tell tall stories about his dance class the next day. A woman emerges from the studio after the class and asks him for a ride. Fusi agrees and at first she rewards his generosity by asking if he’s a pervert. Later, she asks him out to dinner. He accepts and they go to a restaurant, but when she invites him into her home after dinner he declines awkwardly. She says goodnight and skips away, disappointed. Then he changes his mind, rings her doorbell, enters, and—still refusing alcohol or coffee—asks for a glass of milk. His resulting white moustache captures his psychological age, but on that endearing note the romance begins and he begins to grow.
The relationship treads a sweet course for a spell: the couple attends the dance class properly and learn to line dance together. Between this and several other scenes, we learn how remote communities like those in Iceland import pieces of western culture. In other humorous turns, he adds Dolly Parton songs to his musical tastes (girlfriend is a fan), and helps his mom bake crème boule with a blow torch borrowed from work. Sadly, the girlfriend has her own problems—worse problems, in fact. Exhibiting a manic streak, she lies about working in a flower shop (instead she works as a garbage collector), invites and then disinvites Fusi to move in with her; accepts and then rejects his idea for a first ever vacation, in Egypt, to the site of that World War II battle. Then she retreats depressively into a closet, compelling him to take time away from work to help her. A poignant scene amid this drama happens while Fusi is working one of her shifts at the garbage dump. A group of foreign-seeming men observe Fusi sitting alone and chatter about him. Given the prior bullying, we expect the men to begin harassing Fusi, but instead they invite him for a beer. My interpretation of this scene could go different ways: one might think the director is offering hope, saying society, or men, are not all cruel. I’m inclined to think something else: intuiting his growth, Fusi’s becoming a man, the group gives him respect.
But Virgin Mountain seems destined to not end upon a conventionally happy note. Mom’s lover leaves her, as perhaps many men have before him, and upon this event, we learn the likely genesis of Fusi’s arrested development. She now speaks hatefully of Fusi’s girlfriend, not because she is disturbed, but rather because his potential happiness with her equates to the mother’s abandonment—a fear hitherto concealed because she was ensconced in a relationship. As the film draws to a close, we come to understand that while the events of the story may be unique—the dynamic that prevails is a repetition. In the final scene, we see Fusi back at the airport, back on his regular job, loading bags onto a plane, and staring enviously at passengers walking along a tunnel towards it. The film ends and we are left wondering about cycles, repetition, enactments, the problems of separation and growth from a cold place on earth.