The “and” of the title could also be a “versus.”
Fellipe Barbosa’s outstanding “based on a true” travelogue recounts (in Portuguese, English, French, Swahili, Chichewa, and even a little Danish) the final leg of Brazilian Ph.D. candidate Gabriel Buchmann’s 2009 tour of Africa. The opening shots of Gabriel and the Mountain reveal the backpacker-researcher’s body near Malawi’s Mount Mulanje. It cuts back seventy days, retracing each of his last known steps before his hubristic downfall.
Barbosa’s ace is recasting the actual locals Buchmann (João Pedro Zappa) encountered. He has genuine respect toward everyone he meets, but can quickly get cocky. When a Kenyan boy calls him “mzungu,” a somewhat derogatory term for “white man,” Buchmann gets defensive. “I’m Brazilian, I’m not white.” “Here, you are white,” he’s told.
The dynamic changes when his girlfriend (Caroline Abras) visits. Touristic visits sap his soul, but his protestations sound like whining, and she’s eager to pounce on his political beliefs. Are they a good pair? A kind woman they meet in Zambia believes so; Barbosa’s reflective, documentary-style audio interviews with the “witnesses” that play under many scenes are heartbreaking.
The location photography does much of the film’s heavy lifting, especially visits to Mount Kilimanjaro and Mulanje’s Sapitwa Peak. (The rumor is that a young J.R.R. Tolkien visited there, and Barbosa leans into this a bit for the big finish.) The star of the show, however, is the dialogue between cultures. The film steers clear of clichés both Rousseauian or Trumpian. We’ve got ecstatic village dances and a lack of running water. One thing is true for anyone: Don’t think you are too cool to go exploring without a guide.
Gabriel and the Mountain
Directed by Fellipe Barbosa
Opens June 15, Quad Cinema
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