Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 28, 2018 6:13 am 
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For his second feature, Felipe Barbosa has compiled a unique and touching memorial to his school friend Gabriel Bachman, a young Brazilian who died on a mountain in Africa in 2009, at the end of a wanderjahr that was a prelude to beginning doctoral studies in public policy at UCLA. (He was still stinging from not getting into Harvard; perhaps that was a reason for taking so much time off.) Barbosa has tried to evoke Blake's words, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour." The last minutes seem an eternity - and yet how swiftly they rush away! This film is built up of many details that have a growing urgency because we know where they are going.

There is something about Africa that excites exceptional passion and curiosity in the young mzungu - the Kiswahili word for foreigner or white man that Gabriel cheerfully embraced - and makes them fly closer to the sun. This story made me think of Dan Eldon, the British-Kenyan photojournalist stoned to death in Somalia in 1993, at 22. Growing up in Kenya a half-Brit-half-American white man, he had lived a dashing and sexy life, doing good, making films, having fun, traveling with pals in a Range Rover and attracting gorgeous women. Then, after roaming the world, studying in college, working for Reuters and having photos published in newspapers and magazines over the world culminating in a two-page spread in Newsweek, his life, with other photojournalists', ended in anger at a revenge attack by UN troops. Eldon's 17 copiously illustrated journals, some of which have been published by Chronicle Books, are reminiscent of those of that other African photographer-adventurer and fan of beautiful women, Peter Beard. There is a feature film commemorating the life of Dan Eldon too, The Journey Is the Destination, available on Netflix, though it has not been well reviewed. Africa made him alive in a special ground as it did, more briefly, Gabriel Bachman.

An actor, João Pedro Zappa, plays the role of Gabriel, and Caroline Abras plays his girlfriend, Cristina. Zappa seems to have known he was given a great role and he has put his heart and soul into it. The filmmaker and his little crew skip about from country to country accurately retracing Gabriel's steps, an expensive, challenging project. One or two other actors are present in the dramatic recreation. But importantly, at least ten of the Africans Gabriel met along the way have been engaged to play themselves, dramatizing their interactions with the young man as they happened, and sometimes they have brief voice-overs, thus being given a chance to relive and comment at the same time. One says he's named his son after Gabriel. The one who last saw him alive, the guide who balked at the ridiculous idea of running up and down the mountain before sunset, says he is haunted by the memory of Gabriel every day.

Zappa isn't handsome but he is magnetic and has open, eager eyes and a wiry frame and projects both energy and fatigue: watch him bound up that mountain in those rubber sandals. Then watch him struggle partway down.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Gabriel was a "tourist" or a "traveler." Or an adventurer, perhaps. He sternly eschewed tourism. But he was all these things, really, an ordinary young man on an ambitious trip, by himself, with his girlfriend, then by himself again. And very, very alone when he leaves his guide behind going up a dangerous mountain in half or a quarter the time normally allowed for the venture, and pain and exhaustion and hubris overtake him. He just had more moxie, foolhardiness, friendliness and passion for life than most. And these admirable qualities, as can happen, became his undoing.

Early on in a film that seems very long but very moving, for a while, in Kenya, after meeting up with the Masai, Gabriel wraps himself in bright colored fabrics and carries a Masai stick, and enthusiastically dons African sandals made out of tire rubber, which he insists are better than hiking boots. This is how Cristina is startled to find him when they reunite. He has been accused of "cultural appropriation," a term that once did not exist. They called it "going native," or, before that, in the Mideast in the nineteenth century, robes were deemed necessary to blend in, like evening clothes for a formal dinner. Gabriel isn't blending in, he is living his adventure in his own way and with all the enthusiasm of a man in love with a new and breathtakingly vibrant place.

Time after time Gabriel bonds with the men. To avoid tourist traps, he talks them into allowing him to let him sleep in their little houses with them in their beds and he calls them all "brother." This camaraderie is superficial, perhaps, but also passionate and, in the moment, sincere - a sincerity that leaves its mark.

With Caroline he makes love and argues about politics and fights about daily details. But one woman who met them wishes in voice-over they'd married, because she is sure they loved each other. Gabriel as we see him was headstrong, even silly, but a liver, and a lover. And so this becomes an elegy for all young travelers with more enthusiasm than caution, the passionate ones who live fast and die young.

Gabriel insists on time at an internet cafe to download and store his photographs, and in consequence, it appears, Cristina misses two things she'd dreamed of doing, riding an elephant (which she missed out on in India) and bungee jumping. This seems to point to Gabriel's selfishness. But, need we point out, Cristina was being just like him, trying to cram too much into her last minutes before going home? This is a truly loving portrait because it is warts-and-all.

Gabriel and the Mountain/Gabriel e a Montanha, 131 mins., debuted at Cannes Critics Week 2017, showing in two dozen other international festivals. Opening in Paris theaters 30 Aug. 2017, with those Cannes credentials, it was received enthusiastically by critics (AlloCiné press rating 4.0). It opened in Brazil Nov. 2017. Its US theatrical release is New York's Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal Theatre. 15 Jun. 2018 at Digital Gym Cinema, San Diego. 29 Jun. at . 31 Aug. at Opera Plaza Cinemas, San Franciscoand Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley. For other release dates go here. Distributed by Strand Releasing. Metascore 69%.



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