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Film Review: Gabriel & the Mountain

by Andres Solar

The story Brazilian filmmaker Fellipe Barbosa wants to tell is an excellent one. But it’s one better suited to verbal storytelling—at a bar, a memorial service, or even a lecture hall. A feature film is much too big a medium for it.

It’s the true story of the director’s friend, Gabriel Buchmann, to whom the film is dedicated in the opening title card. Barbosa tells of his college-freshman-age pal who embarked on a year-long adventure to “see the world” with more than a fair share of brio and hubris in tow. As the film depicts in its first scene, the trip doesn’t end well. Much of Gabriel and the Mountain is what you might expect from a director who is too close emotionally to his subject.

At the outset, Gabriel is presented as a Christ-like figure. The children of the Kenyan village where he is staying run towards him, smiling and wanting to touch him. They cheer the mzungu (White person). He pays his local hosts and travels “sustainably” as a “non-tourist” (his own words). Someone truly immersed (also his word) in a culture wouldn’t feel the need to boast about it. At dinner, asked by a daughter of his host to sing a song from his homeland, Gabriel does, and then, ever so “thoughtfully,” he asks the child to sing a song, too. These moments are saccharine and they feel bogus and forced.

Barbosa’s intermittent honesty about his late friend’s foibles is the most refreshing thing in the film. When the director is in that mode, the bittersweet stumbles of Gabriel are unflagging. As an expression of the writer-director’s anger at his compatriot, the sequences where the man behaves foolishly are admirable. Yet, Barbosa’s manipulative efforts to get the audience to love his friend like he does—especially noticeable in the first act—while sweet and certainly understandable, do not make for good cinema. Tonally, then, the film is scattershot.

João Pedro Zappa (Gabriel), a moderately experienced television and movie actor, struggles with the tone throughout, except in the climactic final scene where the dramatic notes are fairly obvious. It’s telling that these are the most emotionally effective and subtly powerful minutes.

But Barbosa, who previously directed one narrative feature and one documentary—and here delivers something in between the two—flatly hangs Zappa out to dry in about a dozen scenes. The film plunges into “comically bad” territory, mostly during sequences where Gabriel interacts with locals. Though, last year, Gabriel and the Mountain won the France 4 Visionary Award at Cannes, I could almost hear the notoriously tough audiences there heartily booing these awful scenes.

And, again, any ridicule must be tempered out of respect for a young director and his young friend. The youthful exuberance of both filmmaker and subject can be forgiven, while also noting that Barbosa is almost 40, not 20.

The director’s production strategy was a clever one, though it lacked imagination. He simply retraced the last 70 days of Gabriel’s trek through eastern Africa, documentary-style, adding a handful of actors to the cast of African non-actors who play themselves. The physical settings lent themselves to some beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, cinematography, but artistically the pictures are little more than what you’d see in any well-shot documentary on the region.

Experiencing Gabriel and the Mountain is an exercise in ambivalence. What cannot be circumvented, though, are the privileged places from which its story comes. How many mature adults, never mind recent high school graduates like Gabriel, can afford to take a year-long trip around the world? What’s more, he—and to some extent the film itself—shows the typical obnoxious behavior of the privileged and immature Westerner.

The film asks that we suffer a fool, which is to share in Barbosa’s own suffering. In the end, because of the filmmaker’s honesty and because of Gabriel’s heightening humanity, all is forgiven in this peculiar—if complex, fascinating, and marginally lovely—tribute.

3 of 5 stars

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