'Gabriel and the Mountain' ('Gabriel e a montanha'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

Gabriel and the Mountain - Cannes Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Wandering toward a dead end.

Brazilian director Fellipe Barbosa's second feature premiered in the Critics' Week in Cannes.

A young Brazilian hipster wanders around East Africa in Gabriel and the Mountain (Gabriel e a montanha), based on a true story of a young man found dead in the mountains on the border between Malawi and Mozambique in 2009. Writer-director Fellipe Barbosa here retraces the steps of Gabriel Buchmann, an idealistic, travel-loving classmate of his at the Catholic boys school in Rio where Barbosa’s first feature, Casa Grande, was set.

Through recreating the last 70 days of Buchmann’s life, as he travels through Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi, the director seems to want to investigate what moved his friend to go onto that journey that finally ended with him alone in a desolate mountain region where his body wouldn’t be discovered for several weeks. But there are no easy answers to this question beyond the usual first-world hipster platitudes — a desire to understand poverty; test one’s own limits; see the world … — so in terms of narrative, the film lacks a clear motor beyond being, in hindsight, a march towards a certain death (this is not a spoiler; the film opens with the discovery of his lifeless body).

Barbosa also finds himself in a gray zone in terms of how he put his work together, with experienced Brazilian actors playing Gabriel and his girlfriend, who comes to visit for part of the trip, but otherwise working with locals who actually met Gabriel, thus mixing fiction and non-fiction, invention and recreation. Though festivals will want to take a chance on hybrid material like this, what kind of commercial market there is out there for this kind of fare beyond Brazil, where Buchmann’s story is quite well-known, remains a question mark.

“You’re not a tourist, you’re like a local,” says one of the men Gabriel (Joao Pedro Zappa) runs into in the film’s first chapter, set in Kenya. This after another one of his acquaintances, who has named his son after Gabriel, has told him he’s a “mzungu” or white man, even if Gabriel protests he’s Brazilian, which is not quite the same thing. What is clear is that Buchmann lived closer to the locals than most foreigner visitors, sleeping in their houses, eating their food and trying to hitch a ride on their vehicles.

For a large part of the trip, Gabriel’s dressed in colorful local textiles, maladroitly held together by a western belt. It is this image — not invented, as demonstrated by one of Gabriel’s many actual photos incorporated here — that is perhaps most telling, suggesting Buchmann wanted to integrate himself as well as he could but that he can’t do that without some Western crutches. Whatever the case may be, Barbosa doesn’t seem very interested in questioning Buchmann’s intentions — the idea of cultural appropriation never comes up, for starters — with the young man depicted as sincere if clearly naive.

For someone who met so many locals and has a clear desire to be among them, it is something of a paradox that the film only really manages to construct Gabriel as a character whenever he is with his girlfriend, Cristina (Caroline Abras), who arrives in chapter two, set in Tanzania, and who is gone by the time he enters Malawi in chapter four. They clearly like each other but there’s also some tension between them, which finally boils over in a fight that sheds some light on why he went on a gap year before going to university in the U.S. and how he's willing to pick a fight over their differing ideas about the economy. It’s also clear that he finds the idea of being treated like a tourist offensive, scoffing at a guide who wants to show them around and refusing to order food at a seaside table where he just wants to have a drink. Even so, it is never obvious what he does expect. Does he want all the locals to simply ignore his skin color and the fact he’s a visitor from abroad who doesn’t speak their language? Is it possible at all, as a mzungu, to live like a local?

One thing that does become abundantly clear is that Buchmann has problems prioritizing and managing his agenda. He repeatedly visits places in a rush, even when this could be dangerous for his health like when he goes on hikes to great heights in picturesque mountain ranges. He also wastes time in a Zambian internet cafe on his girlfriend’s last day in Africa, finally making her miss a promised elephant ride and a possibility to go bungee jumping. By stressing this behavior — perhaps not altogether surprising for someone still attending university ... — Barbosa seems to indicate that this may have played a role in Gabriel’s demise, though the exact cause of his death is never quite elucidated. 

Though it is hard to get a read on his character’s inner desires and drive and he’s occasionally burdened with some very basic dialogue, Zappa is an amiable presence, exuding a kind of insouciant can-do attitude that feels right. Opposite him, Abras offers some counterweight as a clearly intelligent young woman who has no problems assuming the role of the tourist she so clearly is. The non-professional locals are fine for the most part, re-enacting their encounters with Gabriel, sometimes, as per the inserted photos, even in the same clothes.  

Barbosa also has to be commended for wanting to tackle what was clearly a complex production for only his second feature, shooting in various countries in Africa and in locations that aren’t always easily accessible and partially with a non-professional cast. If nothing else, the images, accompanied by Arthur B. Gillette’s suitably foreboding score, look gorgeous on the big screen, suggesting at least one of the reasons why Gabriel went on his ill-fated journey.

May 22: Edited to clarify the protagonist's school status.

Production companies: TV Zero, Damned Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Joao Pedro Zappa, Caroline Abras, Alex Alembe, Lenny Siampala, John Goodluck, Rashidi Athuman, Tonny Lesika, Rhosinah Sekeleti, Luke Mpata, Lewis Gadson
Director: Fellipe Barbosa
Screenplay: Fellipe Barbosa, Lucas Paraizo, Kirill Mikhanovsky
Producers: Rodrigo Letier, Roberto Berliner, Clara Linhart, Yohann Cornu
Director of photography: Pedro Sotero
Production designer: Ana Paula Cardoso
Editor: Theo Lichtenberger
Music: Arthur B. Gillette
Casting: Amanda Gabriel
Sales: Films Boutique

In Portuguese, Swahili, English, French
No rating, 127 minutes