Gabriel and the Mountain: World Traveler, by David Bax
If you’re ever looking to define the nebulous term “world cinema,” just pointing toward Fellipe Barbosa’s beautiful and haunting Gabriel and the Mountain would be a good start. A French/Brazilian coproduction set and shot in Eastern Africa, the film unfolds in Portuguese, French, English, Swahili and Kiswahili. This goes beyond either practical or showy choices, though. Barbosa, telling the true story of a Brazilian man who died alone on a mountain in Malawi, employs this expansiveness to illustrate how even the most outgoing, well-traveled person in the world can be governed by his self-dominating interior life. We are, all of us, alone in the end.
Gabriel Buchmann was slated to start graduate school at UCLA in the Fall of 2009. Before doing so, he took a year off to travel the world. Gabriel and the Mountain joins him for the last couple months of his trip, and his life, as he explores the countryside of four African nations. The film’s chapters are each named after one of them: Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. In a staggeringly comprehensive performance, João Pedro Zappa shows us Buchmann’s endless warmth but also his desperation to fill his life up to the brim while he can, even if that means sometimes plowing like a runaway truck through the wishes and feelings of those closest to him, like his girlfriend Cristina (Caroline Abras), who joins him for part of the trip.
Zappa and Abras are so perfect in their roles as young people who love each other but know that their ambitions are destined to pull them apart that it’s almost possible to overlook Barbosa’s other casting gambit, a risk that pays off tenfold. Pretty much everyone other than those two characters is played not just by nonprofessional actors but by the actual people themselves, each of whom interacted with Buchmann in the weeks before he died. With that information, it probably goes without saying that the film is shot in all the same places Buchmann visited. This story has clear parallels to the one recounted in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. But Barbosa’s commitment to verisimilitude adds another layer, illustrating the chasm between Buchmann’s idealistic, head-in-the-clouds vigor and reality without ever judging him for it. Even the locals who think he’s crazy seem to respect him. The same goes for those of us watching.
Further juxtapositions are on offer from the cinematography of Pedro Sotero (who recently shot Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius). While Sotero’s camera is just as hungry and expansive as Buchmann is, it possesses a patience that he doesn’t. This leads to some breathtaking pastoral vistas but it also creates an internal tension between the movie and the protagonist that only increases as he nears the end of his trip and his fervor increases to a near-mania.
It’s as if Buchmann is trying to escape something. Barbosa implies heavily that the thing his subject is running from is his own privilege and the guilt he feels about it. Gabriel and the Mountain, in some ways, exists to puncture the bourgeois fantasy of traveling without being a tourist. At times, Buchmann’s insistence on his own authenticity makes him come across like a petulant douche. But Barbosa is not out to condemn him; on the contrary, he clearly feels a deep compassion for Buchmann. Here was a man who gave of himself fully, who learned more about more people than most of us ever will and who endeavored to make better the lives of everyone he met. Whatever it was he was trying to getting away from, dying on a Malawian mountainside wasn’t how he wanted to do it. Gabriel and the Mountain isn’t a tale of self-destruction; it’s a tragedy whose hero’s fatal flaw is the drive to be the best possible version of himself.