River of Dreams: A Review of ‘The Lost City of Z’

the lost city of z

In movie-world, South America exists only so white men can get lost in its jungles. Half the time, these explorers are motivated by greed, and are destined to go mad searching for entire cities made of gold. The other half is dedicated to those noble explorers who will find spiritual salvation by connecting to a primal spirit that can only be found in such a remote place. I can’t stop thinking about James Gray’s new movie The Lost City of Z since I saw it Thursday night. It is, again, the story of a white explorer who searches for a mythical city in the Amazon. It is Romantic, pragmatic, realistic, and fantastical all at the same time. It belongs -without a doubt- to this long list of movies about white explorers getting lost in the jungle, and yet, it is unlike any such movie I have ever seen.

Critics who love it -and there are many- are sure to point out how The Lost City of Z is the kind of movie that doesn’t get made any more. And they’re right. This is the type of old-fashioned adventure that Hollywood studios will be thoroughly uninterested in financing as long as superheroes and loud robots keep bringing cash the way they do. We’re talking about a movie filled with explorers, dangerous rivers, panthers, and cannibals. The kind of adventure movie that could’ve easily been made by a major Hollywood studio in the forties, fifties, or sixties. Had that been the case, though, the movie would’ve surely been of the kind that we now call “problematic”.

While those movies undoubtedly have their merits (and there are many), they are products of a different time. A time in which it was perfectly fine for Alec Guinness to play an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia and nobody batted an eye at the grotesquely insensitive portrayal of African warriors in the movie Zulu. Later in history, when we started to feel bad about this sort of treatment, filmmakers went to the other extreme, portraying indigenous people as ridiculously noble, almost magical creatures that showed the white protagonists how to become his better self. Somewhere along the road it’s become clear that the best way to deal with these questions of representation is to allow for movies written, directed, and told from the perspective of the indigenous people (a good example would be the Australian film Ten Canoes).

That is not the kind of movie that James Gray wants to make, and that’s ok. Gray is often described as a classicist; a director interested in re-examining the perennial genres of American cinema. He’s given us his take on the New York cop drama (We Own the Night) and the American dream melodrama (The Immigrant), and now gives us his take on the white explorer movie. And it’s quite fascinating. He is undoubtedly more interested in the white protagonist than the indigenous characters he encounters, but the nuance with which Gray portrays the man’s adventure feels unprecedented. What’s more, he brings something to the movie that wouldn’t fly with any big studio, no matter the era. Something that exists beyond the story and scope of the movie. Something that cannot be understood, only felt. Something mysterious and moving.

Before you dismiss me as some sort of cheap guru, let me tell you what the movie is about. It is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by American journalist David Grann, which is in turn an exploration of the life of Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett, a real life English explorer who disappeared in the Amazon, as he was obsessed with finding a lost city he called, you guessed it, “Z”. As portrayed in the movie by Charlie Hunnam, Fawcett is a man with a mission as ambitious as his mustache. Born to an alcoholic father, Fawcett is determined to prove himself and climb the ladder of English high society. After embarking on a trip to map out the border between Bolivia and Brazil, however, he finds himself fascinated with the possible existence of an ancient civilization hidden deep in the jungle.

A lesser film might’ve portrayed Fawcett as a strictly noble character, but Gray’s portrayal is meticulously unsentimental. Fawcett’s motives for trying to find this ancient city aren’t nefarious. He is not searching after gold or riches, he wants to prove to the scientific establishment back in Britain that they have “underestimated the Indian”. Perhaps he sees himself in these Indians, dismissed as savages the way he’s dismissed for being the son of a drunk. Fawcett devotes his life to this quest, neglecting his wife (Sienna Miller) and his children (the oldest of which is played by new Spider-Man Tom Holland). He is a dreamer, but also an obsessive. When he goes off to fight in World War I he shelters himself from the horrors of war by clinging not to a picture of his wife or his kids, but of the jungle.

If you truly think about it, Fawcett is neither a hero nor a villain. He is a fascinating and engaging figure, but it’s as hard to fully root for him as it is to dismiss him as a colonialist. That’s one of the great virtues of Gray’s touch. Whenever he is given a choice in how to portray Fawcett, he chooses the more complicated option. For every moment in which Fawcett is ambushed by a hostile tribe and orders his men not to shoot but instead sing a song and attempt to make contact, there is a scene in which he has a conversation with his wife about how he considers her an equal, but don’t be ridiculous she can’t join him in his next trip the jungle is no place for a woman. The purpose of his quest is to point out the arrogant blindness of European scientists, but Fawcett has blind-spots of his own.

And while this meticulously calibrated -and rather distant- exploration of the character is happening, the movie is indulging in the kind of fabulous imagery that makes people fall in love with the magic of cinema. Cinematographer Darius Khondji turns the Amazon into a Romantic painting, with flickering torch-light, glowing rivers, and purple-red twilights. The score, by Christopher Spelman, is right out of a classic epic, with swelling strings and pounding drums. And the sound design, quiet and merciless, does as much as any other craft to convince us that this jungle is as much a real space as a figment of our imaginations. What is this place? It looks and sounds like nothing we’ve ever seen. Are we also explorers?

That’s the question that opened up the movie for me. I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching when I sat in the theater for The Lost City of Z, but thinking back on it I’ve come to realize the brilliance of Gray’s style. You wouldn’t expect it from a movie as elegant and restrained as this, but more so than any movie I’ve seen in quite a while, The Lost City of Z is an immersive experience. It is designed not to make us understand, but to make us feel the themes of the movie. This is most explicitly clear in the last section of the movie, when a final expedition finally  has the world of Fawcett’s family life in England and his adventurer life in South America meet, and reality becomes a dream.

What exactly happens in those last fifteen minutes of movie? The real Fawcett disappeared in the jungles of Brazil in 1925, his movie equivalent fades out of the screen in a haze. He started out trying to better his station, then the jungle become something more. The myth he created for himself has become his own reality. But what does this mean? Is this a beautiful moment of rapture, or a tragic end to a fruitless mission the ramifications of which he couldn’t fully understand? Whatever it is, we cannot make sense of it, only feel it. That weird feeling of excitement that comes with a chill to the bone when you respond to a movie that you don’t quite understand.

In an interview with film critic Peter Labuza, James Gray talks about the importance of story in film saying: “Birth, life, death. We have to make sense of that cycle.” He’s talking about why telling stories is a fundamental aspect of film making. “Nobody is above story”, he says, and with Lost City of Z, he’s made a movie that embodies that mantra. He’s made one of those movies that are inexplicable. You watch them, and you feel like the filmmaker isn’t even sure of what exactly he’s trying to say, only that he had to say it. It’s a movie that feels bigger than itself, a movie that suggests there is something more.

I’m not even sure I like The Lost City of Z and I couldn’t care less. It feels beside the point. I’ve thought about the movie incessantly since I watched it, and I can’t wait to see it again. I can’t wait to think of twenty more interpretations, trying to figure out what the movie is trying to say. Even though I know, all twenty times, I will be wrong.

Cannes 2017 Preview

ismael's ghosts

The Cannes Film Festival is the most prestigious and exciting event in a cinephile’s calendar year. Every year, for two magical weeks in May, the world’s most respected filmmakers and some of the biggest stars in the world get together to celebrate the best of cinema in the beautiful French coast. I can’t help obsess about the Festival, and so it’s become a tradition for me to comment on the Official Selection every year right after it is announced.

This year’s Main Competition titles include new works by some of my very favorite filmmakers in the world, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suffer from some of the problems that are seemingly indebted to the selection process. First of all, this lineup includes only three female directors (which is on part with the last couple of years, but still a frustrating number for a Festival that is the ultimate gatekeeper of what is considered great cinema). Second, it’s a lineup very much focused on American and European filmmakers. There are only three East Asian productions, and no representation whatsoever for Latin America, Africa, and any Asian country other than Japan and South Korea. One or two films are usually added to the competition lineup after the announcement, so we’ll see if any of those bring a little more diversity to this group.

But let’s not bury the lead here. The biggest story of the day is that Nicole Kidman has FOUR (!) different movies premiering at the Festival. After captivating the world with her incredible performance in HBO’s miniseries Big Little Lies, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Kidman has set her eye on world domination, and I for one welcome our new Australian thespian overlord.

Most years I get so excited and can’t wait for the time when all these movies are released in theaters and I can finally see them that I end up watching (or re-watching) other movies by the selected filmmakers. So this year, I decided to include some recommendations for those of you who are unfamiliar but would like to get acquainted with these Cannes-approved auteurs.

Ismael’s Ghosts (directed by Arnaud Desplechin)
This movie is not in the Main Competition, but it will open the Festival. There is a history of Cannes openers being bad (past openers include The Da Vinci Code and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood), but this drama about a film director dealing with the return of his former lover feels right at home at Cannes. Desplechin is a festival favorite, as are Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Mathieu Amalric, all of whom star in the movie.
Where to start: Desplechin is one of the most well-respected French filmmakers working today. Some of his most well-known films are heavily autobiographical, but I think the best place to start with him is with his family drama A Christmas Tale , (newly available through the Criterion Collection) starring frequent collaborator Mathieu Amalric and the legendary Catherine Deneuve.

In the Fade (directed by Fatih Akin)
This is a thriller set in the Turkish-German community in Hamburg. It follows Diane Kruger as a woman who seeks revenge after a bomb kills her family.
Where to start: Akin is a German director of Turkish decent. His most popular movie, The Edge of Heavenpaints a wonderful portrait of the complicated relationship between Germany and Turkey, and won the Screenplay Award at Cannes in 2007.

The Meyerowitz Stories (directed by Noah Baumbach)
The latest movie by one of my favorite American directors has already been picked up for distribution by streaming giant Netflix, so expect this to be available in your computers later this year. As far as we can tell, this is the story of an estranged New York family reuniting to celebrate the patriarch. The cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller, and… Adam Sandler?
Where to start: Based on the description, this new movie sounds quite autobiographical, just like the coming-of-age tale The Squid and the Whalewhich put Baumbach on the map. That would be a great place to start for those who are unfamiliar with his work, as would the new-wavy Frances Hastarring a delightful Greta Gerwig. My personal favorite, however, is the hilarious Mistress Americawhich also stars Gerwig.

Okja (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
This is the second movie in Cannes Competition produced by Netflix, which is kind of a big deal for a company that has struggled to be embraced by cinema purists. Sure to inspire comparisons to E.T.this movie centers on a girl trying to keep her monster-friend-creature Okja from being taken by an evil corporation. It’s the kind of action-packed movie you wouldn’t expect to see at Cannes, except Bong has proven to be a master when it comes to mixing high art and genre cinema. In case you’re not sufficiently excited, let me mention that Tilda Swinton is in this movie.
Where to start: The movie that made Bong famous is the disaster-kaiju movie The Hostwhich was a blockbuster hit in his native South Korea. If you’re a little scared of subtitles, though, you can’t go wrong with his English debut, the violent and rebellious Snowpiercerwhich features Tilda Swinton in a delightfully unhinged performance.

120 Beats per Minute (directed by Robin Campillo)
I don’t know much about this movie, except that it focuses on the history of the activist group Act Up, which organized to fight AIDS in the early 90s.
Where to start: I haven’t seen Campillo’s other features as a director (this is his third), but I can vouch for his talents as co-writer and editor of Laurent Cantet’s The Classwhich won the Palme D’Or in 2008.

The Beguiled (directed by Sofia Coppola)
The best way to get excited for this movie is to just watch the trailer. I’ve already written about this movie as one of my most anticipated of the year, and don’t have much to say except that it’s a Civil War-era drama where a Union Soldier (Colin Farrell) seeks refuge in an all-girls school in the South, whose inhabitants include Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. If you are, like me, a fan of Coppola, well, then you’re already sold.
Where to start: Coppola’s biggest mainstream success was undoubtedly the Oscar-winning Lost in Translationbut I think the best introduction to her unique style and mood is through her first film: The Virgin Suicides

Rodin (directed by Jacques Doillon)
A biography of famous French sculptor August Rodin starring Vincent Lindon, who won the award for Best Actor at Cannes in 2015. Back then, he was playing a man struggling to provide for his family during the economic crisis in The Measure of a Man.
Where to start: I’m mostly unfamiliar with the work of Doillon, except that his most famous title is the nineties drama Ponetteabout an infant dealing with the death of her mother. You’ll know whether you want to watch the movie based only on that premise.

Happy End (directed by Michael Haneke)
The king of Cannes returns! Haneke has won the Palme D’Or for his last two movies (Amour, The White Ribbon) and there are many an oddsmaker who will tell you the odds of him winning a third time aren’t bad. As we all know, Haneke loves to put the bourgeoisie through misery, so this time he has made a family drama with the European migrant crisis as the backdrop. Jean-Louis Trintignant and the fabulous Isabelle Huppert are his subjects.
Where to start: Like I said, Haneke’s films can come off as hugely sadistic, so if you want to ease into his relentless style, you might want to start with the Oscar-winning Amourwhich focuses on a man caring for his dying wife. Yup, Haneke’s meditation on death is the most accessible of his movies.

Wonderstruck (directed by Todd Haynes)
One of the most talented directors of his generation, Haynes returns to Cannes with a tale about two runaways. A contemporary midwestern boy and a girl living in 1920s New York. The cast includes Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore, and the 1920s section is supposedly a silent film. So, yeah, I’m excited.
Where to start: If you haven’t experienced the miraculous benefits of watching Carolthen you should right that wrong as soon as possible.

Redoubtable (directed by Michel Hazanavicius)
Last time Hazanvicius was at Cannes, his remake of The Search was met with loud boos and scathing reviews. He is back, though, with a biopic of iconic French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard.
Where to start: I think it’s time to give The Artist a second look. Now that the noise and tension of its Oscar campaign has dissipated, you will probably find it to be a charming little comedy. At least I do.

The Day After (directed by Hong Sang-soo)
I can’t find a reliable plot synopsis of this movie. I only know that it stars Korean actress Min-hee Kim, who was absolutely wonderful in last year’s The Handmaidenand was embroiled in a tabloid scandal when she started a relationship with… Hong Sang-soo! I’d tell you more about it if I had access to the Korean equivalent of OK Magazine.
Where to start: Hong is one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, often making a movie a year (not only does he have this movie at Cannes, but another starring Isabelle Huppert will play Out of Competition). I have only seen Right Now, Wrong Thenwhich is a very interesting (and endearing) movie, and I’m told is quite representative of his style. I guess it’s time for me to catch up with his work.

Radiance (directed by Naomi Kawase)
You would be absolutely insane to except a random person on the street to know who Japanese director Naomi Kawase is, but at Cannes, she is a perennial fixture and there is a whole narrative about when will she finally win the Palme D’Or. That’s why this place is magical.
Where to start: I must confess I haven’t seen any of her movies, though I hear The Mourning Forest is the place to start.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
The second of Nicole Kidman movie in the Competition, and the third to have been included in my list of the Most Anticipated of 2017. Needless to say, I’m excited about this movie, and not just because The Lobster was one of my favorite movies of last year. The cast for this one includes Colin Farrell and Alicia Silverstone (!!).
Where to start: Lanthimos’ English debut The Lobster is probably the best place to start, but if you want a peek of truly insane art house cinema, then you have to watch his breakout movie Dogtooth

A Gentle Creature (directed by Sergey Loznitsa)
The movie is based on a short story by Dostoyevsky, and focuses -like so much of Russian literature- on a woman’s suffering. Joking aside, this Ukranian movie should be hugely political in its message, at least based on what I know about the director’s previous work.
Where to start: Sadly, I haven’t seen Loznitsa’s other work, though I’ve heard nothing but good things about My Joy and In the Fog

Jupiter’s Moon (directed by Kornel Mundruczo)
All I know about this movie is that it’s some sort of “refugee drama”, but let me say I’m highly suspicious of this title. We all know Jupiter has more than one moon. I don’t know what this guy is trying to pull here.
Where to start: This is Mundruczo’s second film, so the obvious (and only) place to start is White Godwhich won the Un Certain Regard Award in 2014, and features a truly epic stampede of wild dogs through the streets of Budapest.

L’Amant Double (directed by François Ozon)
I don’t know much about this movie, so let me take the time instead to tell you all that I very recently watched Ozon’s latest movie, Frantzwhich is currently playing in theaters and is absolutely fantastic. If you’re a fan of classic cinema, romance, or just good movies in general, you should seek it out.
Where to start: If you can’t afford to the ticket or the babysitter required to go see Frantz in the cinema, then my answer for the best introduction to Ozon’s world of emotion and melodrama is the wonderful musical 8 Women.

You Were Never Really Here (directed by Lynne Ramsay)
Like so many female directors, Ramsay doesn’t get the chance to work as often as we would like her to. This is her first movie in six years, a thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as a veteran trying to save a girl from a sex trafficking ring. 
Where to start: Ramsay is a fascinating filmmaker, and she announced herself as such with her very first feature, a unique coming-of-age story by the name of Ratcatcher

Good Time (directed by Josh Safdie and Ben Safdie)
Perhaps the most gratifying surprise of this year’s announcement was the inclusion of this team of brothers who’ve been working for a while in the micro-budget section of American cinema be included in the big boys club reserved for international auteurs. I mean, they were already climbing up, judging by the fact that this movie stars Robert Pattinson.
Where to start: And the reason why everyone was excited about the Safdies inclusion in the lineup wasn’t just the underdog factor, but the quality of their last movie, Heaven Knows Whata tough but truly outstanding portrait of drug-addiction.

Loveless (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The one Russian film in the competition, and judging by Zvyagintsev’s previous work, surely to be subversive and political in more ways than one. According to the synopsis I could find, this is about a couple that must suspend their divorce-in-progress in order to find their son, who mysteriously disappeared during one of their arguments.
Where to start: He gained praise for his mammoth Leviathan, but if you don’t want to commit to the two-and-a-half hour running time, then may I suggest Elenaabout a housewife trying to secure some money for her future.