The Lost City of Z (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Lost City of Z,” written for the screen and directed by James Gray, would fit right in had it been released in the 1970s when movies of this type were still being made and seen by adventurous audiences or viewers who may temporarily crave for adventure. It is no surprise then that some, or many, modern audiences may be numb to its appeal. They are likely to cite pacing issues, a lack of a defined script, a standard dramatic parabola expected from more recent biographical works. I admired and enjoyed the film exactly for these reasons.
Here is a portrait of a man with an obsession that evolves over decades. Initially, his obsession is social mobility, his need to be regarded by other men wearing medals as an equal. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) wishes to be respected. But travel changes a person. We observe how this man is changed every time he returns home from the jungles of South America as his family and peers function as mirrors, reflecting the image of the man he once was. There as interesting discussion to be had whether Percy is more or less of a person each time an expedition ends. I argue he becomes more than what he thought he could ever be; I related to his thirst for knowledge and the need to illuminate those unable to look past themselves.
The picture commands beauty through its use of calculated lighting. Never too bright nor dark, its grayish appearance gives the impression of looking into a memory. Images may be awash with dull colors but it is fascinating how emotions are consistently at the forefront, sharp, and confronting—whether it be a disagreement amongst fellow explorers on how to proceed with their travails or subtle expressions of deep regrets for having missed out on lost time with one’s wife and children. There is a point to every scene which may not always progress the plot but just about each one tells an interesting detail about the man whose body is never found after his journey in 1925.
Scenes that take place in the jungle reminded me of Werner Herzog’s excellent “Fitzcarraldo” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” Although not as epic in scope as Herzog’s masterworks, this film captures the dangers and unpredictabilities of exploration. It takes its time to show us the river, how difficult it is to navigate through when everything is going right and how nearly impossible it is when every element is going wrong. Even humor can be found in the most dire and desperate situations. I enjoyed how we get a chance to meet different tribes, to infer what they value based on what can be found in their environment, the jewelries they wear, their treatment of strangers who dare set foot on their territories. Clearly, this is a picture for a patient audience. Those willing to look closely will be rewarded.
“The Lost City of Z” may not be for the general audience of today, but it is for me. Its elliptical storytelling technique communicates courage, its willingness to slow down so we have enough time to appreciate beauty and to dig inside ourselves suggests it values that we have a spiritual experience, its ability to present its subject as virtuous and flawed creates complexity worth a conversation. Here is a film that actively works to engage the viewer, possibly in ways that a viewer doesn’t expect from having decided to jump into a story about a man hoping to find proof of a mythical lost civilization.