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Amazonia: Venice Review

Amazonia

The Bottom Line

A spectacular nature doc astutely works an exciting adventure narrative around real animals.

Venue

Venice Film Festival (out of competition)

Director

Thierry Ragobert

Screenwriters

Johanne Bernard, Luiz Bolognesi, Louis-Paul Desanges, Luc Marescot, Thierry Ragobert
 

An adorable baby monkey lost in the Amazon steals the show in director Thierry Ragobert's nature documentary.

When a small plane goes down in a storm somewhere over the Amazon rain forest, the hero survives the crash and is forced to make his way over incredibly hostile terrain, facing hunger, thirst and dangerous animals. Of course he survives against all odds -- this is a film aimed at family audiences -- but the way he manages to do so is a thrilling tale. The only unusual thing is that the hero is a baby capuchin monkey, possibly one of the most expressive, natural child actors on film, and his story is told with a good deal of chattering but not a word of dialogue. Stunningly shot in 3D and micro-photography in breathtaking locations, Amazonia closed the Venice film festival on an uncontroversial ooh-ah note, before tackling the Toronto kids' program.

Presuming it reaches the audiences it deserves, the uniqueness of this Brazilian-French coprod directed by Thierry Ragobert is likely to spark a spate of imitators. All the expected denizens of a tropical rainforest documentary take a bow -- tigers and anacondas and spiders and toucans and anteaters and tree sloths -- only here they appear to act, or at least react, to the little monkey as he makes his way through the jungle. Which just goes to prove an old film theory or two about the power of editing to create meaning in the mind of the viewer. Eliminating both sex and violence, the film is eminently suitable to young children who should be entranced but not overly frightened.

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The story begins as a little girl says goodbye to her pet monkey and its cage is loaded onto a private plane, along with her bicycle and other toys. Wherever it is going, the flight runs into bad weather and crashes into the densely forested jungle. The two pilots scramble out and disappear, leaving the poor furry hero alone and trembling with fright in his cage. Soon two strange animals appear searching for food in the wreckage, and one of them adroitly opens the cage door.  

Scared because he’s apparently never been out on his own before in the big bad world, but also curious about his new freedom, the monkey ventures out into the forest. He still wears a red ribbon around his neck, a sign of his status and his links to the “superior” human world, which will play an important role later on in the story. Meanwhile he scurries around looking for food and learning which creatures are harmless and which are not. The rainforest follows its natural cycle of sunshine and downpours, reducing the upset little hero to a soaked ball of fur. He falls into a churning river laced with waterfalls and almost drowns, but manages to climb aboard a tree trunk and on this improvised boat sails down a crocodile-infested river. When, after great travails and with considerable courage, he manages to find a troop of fellow capuchins, the music soars and viewers breathe a sigh of relief. But more is to come.

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Perhaps the chief merit of filmmaker Ragobert, who was one of three directors on the 2006 Arctic wildlife film The White Planet, is his skill in combining extensive 3D technical work with untrained animals with a persuasive screenplay. Written by many hands, it is artfully suspenseful, cleverly incorporating the splendors and dangers of the natural wilderness in the storyline. The ending comes as a satisfying surprise. But it is the adorable protag who steals the show with his amazingly mobile, communicative face full of primate emotions.  

While the cinematography is exceptionally vivid throughout, including huge blow-ups of insects, snails and the like, the 3D images are particularly effective in the rainforest setting. But not all the film looks like it's using 3D; several scenes seemed more 2D in the Venice screening. One unforgettable sequence depicts hypnotically beautiful pools of water after a big thunderstorm that turn the rainforest into a floating delta, out of which rises the monkeys’ ancient tree like the central tree of life in Avatar.

Bruno Coulais’ score is stirring and hardly subtle, guiding the meaning of scenes as though it was written for very young audiences.

Venue:  Venice Film Festival (out of competition)
Production companies: Biloba Films, Gullane
Director: Thierry Ragobert
Screenwriters: Johanne Bernard, Luiz Bolognesi, Louis-Paul Desanges, Luc Marescot, Thierry Ragobert
Producers: Stephane Milliere, Laurent Baujard, Fabiano Gullane, Caio Gullane, Debora Ivanov, Gabriel Lacerda
Directors of photography: Manuel Teran, Gustavo Hadba, Jerome Bouvier
Music: Bruno Coulais
Editors: Nadine Verdier, Thierry Ragobert  
Sales: Le Pacte
No rating, 83 minutes