Machetes, myths and murky storytelling all find their way into Tragic Jungle (Selva Trágica), the lushly made, if highly enigmatic, fifth feature from Mexican writer-director Yulene Olaizola (Fogo), which screened in the main slate of the New York Film Festival after premiering in the Horizons section in Venice.
Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Sofía Oggioni, who lensed the award-winning 2018 Cannes film Los Silencios, this minimalist period piece follows several characters wandering the dense tropical forests between Mexico and Belize, a place where man, nature and Mayan folklore fuse together in unsettling ways.
Like the recent South American colonial tales Embrace of the Serpent and Zama, Olaizola’s movie offers a contemporary take on exploitations past, although it feels more like a sampling of moods and themes than a full-fledged narrative. Still, certain moments linger in your mind — a man suddenly falling from the jungle canopy; a white horse crossing the Hondo River by raft; a couple making love in the moonlight beneath a giant tree — which should help land additional festival berths and niche distribution.
One recurring image fuels the story, which was written by Olaizola and producer Rubén Imaz: that of Agnes (the luminous Indira Andrewin), a young Belizean woman in a white dress who spends most of the movie walking through the forest, first when she escapes the significantly older English landowner (Dale Carley) who wants to marry her, then when she falls into the hands of a band of Mexican laborers extracting gum from trees using harnesses, machetes and buckets.
Agnes, who hardly says a word for much of the film, is more of an ethereal presence than a real person — an idea underscored by the fact that the workers believe she may be Xtabay, a Mayan demon whose puissant beauty can steer men toward their deaths. Indeed, Agnes’ arrival among the Mexicans, who are led by a man named Ausencio (Gilberto Barraza), doesn’t augur well for them. Soon enough they begin to drop like flies.
Olaizola maintains a subtle level of tension throughout, with death always lurking around the corner in the form of accidents, diseases and attacks, especially when the workers skirmish with the landowner’s Creole-speaking henchmen near the border. (Before its independence in 1981, Belize was a colony known as British Honduras.)
But the director also keeps too much distance from characters, including Agnes, who can seem more like background actors than protagonists. Likewise, the performances by the generally nonprofessional cast tend to be uneven and can stretch credulity in places, even if they lend certain scenes a documentary-like flair.
What Olaizola does best is create an atmosphere of almost mystical uncertainty at times, setting her film in a place where the frontiers between countries, cultures, reality, folklore, past and present are in constant flux. With Oggioni’s crepuscular images making use of the forest’s dark canopy to create plenty of shadow play, and composer Alejandro Otaola providing a dissonant score, there’s a dreamlike quality to Tragic Jungle that transcends all the rest, haunting the viewer in the same way the forest haunts those who dare to venture within it.
Venues: New York Film Festival (Main Slate)
Production companies: Malacosa Cine, Various Lobos
Cast: Indira Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool, Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez, Eligio Meléndez, Dale Carley
Director: Yulene Olaizola
Screenwriters: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz
Producers: Pablo Zimbrón Alva, Rubén Imaz, Yulene Olaizola
Executive producers: Victor Léycegui, Oscar Ruiz Navia, Paula Chaurand, Lorena Villareal, Martín Burillo, Gerardo Gatica, Denisse Chapa
Director of photography: Sofía Oggioni
Production designer: Luis Luino
Costume designer: Samuel Conde
Music: Alejandro Otaola
Editors: Rubén Imaz, Yulene Olaizola, Israel Cárdenas, Pablo Chea
Sales: Varios Lobos
In Spanish, English, Maya, Creole