Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Oct 09, 2020 8:43 pm 
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YULENE OLAIZOLA: TRAGIC JUNGLE/SELVA TRAGICA (2020) - virtual NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

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INDIRA ANDREWIN (RIGHT) IN TRAGIC JUNGLE

Tristes tropiques

Olaizola updates the myth of the seductress Xtabay (narrated, or alluded to, via occasional indigenous-language voiceover) in realistic jungle confusion set in the 1920's, at a time when the Mayan rainforest maze along the Rio Hondo separated Mexico from British Honduras. Two women, Agnes (Indira Andrewin), the prettier, and a virgin, and her sister Florence (Shantai Obispo), the sluttier, are escaping a British landowner (Dale Carley) with a field worker (Cornelius McLaren). Florence tells Agnes she could have married him. Too late! They apparently get shot, but later Agnes becomes the prisoner of a very motley crew of chicleros (who milk rubber trees for the gum). In this Heart of Darkness meets Aguirre meets Tropical Malady action, we're lost in the jungle with these chicleros, who're being seduced and disappeared by Xtabay, in the form of the sex-hungry Agnes, and have other misfortunes pick them off, like falling from a high tree or getting shot by the English guy and his henchmen; or they just turn mad and get lost. The chicleros also try to run off with a giant load of chicle that's not theirs with dire consequences, so a Treasure of the Sierra Madre vibe is added in to this jungle jumble.

Some of this, what relates to pure atmosphere, is worthy and good, such as the indigenous-language voiceover, which sets the right haunting, archaic note. The jungle does its thing, with leopards, several kinds of monkey, alligators, ants, millipedes, little green things floating all over the water along the bank, and that seething-surging sound that is richer and scarier than any other score in the world. The various types, Indian, English-, and Spanish-speaking locals feed into the melting pot. The jungle is verdantly real and pulsing as shot by dp Sofía Oggioni.

But the trouble is that not just the men but the action goes around in circles. David Erlich of Indiewire describes it as "They walk, they screw, they die. They walk, they screw, they die," but there's not enough of that progression to provide a sense of narrative structure. Erlich says Olaizola could have just kept redressing the "same green thicket of trees" for each successive scene and we wouldn't have known the difference. That's just one trouble - a serious trouble. We also need a storyteller, like Hemingway, who'd be at home with these men and this situation, but of course he didn't do native myths. Olaizola and her cowriter Rubén Imaz don't seem to know how to tell a story. They don't make the action suspenseful, and they also haven't figured out ways to make Agnes spooky and seductive. Just as Agnes/Xtabay keeps going limp, so does the narrative, morphing into a throbbing neutral inertia, the deep, heavy inertia of the jungle. The chicleros take a lot of pulls from their liquor bottles, so they're pretty drunk, too. Locals apparently playing themselves not very successfully at times can also slow things down. This seemed longer than it was.


Tragic Jungle/Selva tragica, 93 mins., debuted in the Orizzonti section at Venice in Sept. 2020, playing also at Hamburg later that month. It also is included at Warsaw Oct. 13, and was screened for this review at its NYFF showing Oct. 3, 2020.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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