'The Forest of Lost Souls': Film Review

The Forest of Lost Souls Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Wild Eye Releasing
An intriguing premise grows much more ordinary in the second act.

Jose Pedro Lopes' hard-to-categorize debut centers on people considering suicide.

Looking at first like an underplayed black comedy about suicide before becoming something much more nihilistic, Jose Pedro Lopes' The Forest of Lost Souls centers on a woman whose own professed ambivalence about life leads her to hang out in areas where she'll meet like-minded strangers. Sporting attractive B&W lensing and other arthouse-ready touches but ultimately having more in common with genre fare, it should find some admirers among horror connoisseurs on video but has limited theatrical appeal.

Lopes' first feature after making several short films, it focuses on a forest in Portugal that, at least in the film's imagination, attracts large numbers of people who'd like to end their lives surrounded by quiet beauty (shades of the Japanese forest in Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees). So much so that when a middle-age man (Jorge Mota's Ricardo) parks his car near the picnic tables at the park's entrance, he sees the word "suicide" and an arrow painted on the grass, pointing the way to a popular area.

Ricardo is just beginning his "Is this a dagger I see before me?" moment when a young woman's voice scolds him. Carolina (Daniela Love), sitting high above him with a noose around her neck, has chosen this place to jump and would like a little privacy.

The next several minutes are a kind of comedy of manners taking a matter-of-fact attitude toward self-murder. She mocks his hara-kiri plan and questions whether he's really going to follow through with things; he scolds her for believing, at her young age, she knows enough to give up hope. Each having wrecked the moment for the other, they decide to have a walk in the woods to calm themselves before making the big decision.

The film itself appears to take suicide seriously as a choice, at least in principle: Its opening voiceover notes that Nietzsche viewed it as a "great consolation" — a way, on troubled nights, to remind himself that a certain exit from all problems existed. But a countering voice pops up here and at the tale's end, its source unknown: "Sadness," it promises, "will last forever."

Love and Mota are testing their chemistry as generation-spanning interlocutors (Carolina's around the age of Ricardo's two daughters, one of whom killed herself here a year ago) when the picture takes a hard left turn, flirting with thriller-ish violence but not quickly establishing what it means.

That question hangs over most if not all of the film's remainder, as Forest ventures back to town, to the house where Ricardo's daughter Filipa (Mafalda Banquart) and his wife (Ligia Roque) are wondering where Dad has gone. It becomes something of a slasher film, in which the stalker's sneakiness once or twice comes close to self-parody — but the tone is far from comic, and to some extent the life has drained from the movie.

Lopes follows through on this scenario, hinting at possible meanings but never making motives explicit. Only in its final moments do things crystallize with a nasty, half-ironic commentary. Some matters remain unclear, but one message doesn't: Don't start flirting with death until you're absolutely sure you're ready to go.

Production company: Anexo 82
Distributor: Wild Eye Releasing
Cast: Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, Ligia Roque, Lilia Lopes, Tiago Jacome
Director-screenwriter: Jose Pedro Lopes
Producers: Ana Almeida, Jose Pedro Lopes
Director of photography: Francisco Lobo
Editor: Ana Almeida
Composer: Emanuel Gracio

In Portuguese
73 minutes