Watching “Gabriel and the Mountain” is like getting to know all sides of a friend’s character: You may discover more arrogance than expected, but the elements you always liked are reinforced. That was presumably Fellipe Barbosa’s goal when making this follow-up to his much-acclaimed debut “Casa Grande,” based on school friend Gabriel Buchmann, who traveled to Africa and died on the slopes of Malawi’s Mount Mulanje in 2009. Though Gabriel came from the same milieu as the characters in Barbosa’s previous film, the two features are very different in feel; there’s some social critique, but mostly the director extends heartfelt warmth to his friend, with the help of men and women who met Gabriel on his journey. At a running time of more than two hours, the film’s length may give art-house programmers pause, but fests will have an audience pleaser.
Early descriptions have implied that Barbosa’s sophomore feature is a docu-fiction hybrid, which is misleading. Yes, it’s based on a real story, and people who interacted with Gabriel appear as themselves, occasionally offering direct recollections via voiceover. But Barbosa isn’t jumping on the troubling “truth is relative” bandwagon, and the voiceovers act as commentary rather than as a device to muddy the waters of authenticity. The director credits Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond” as a key intellectual influence, though the point of view stays consistent and Gabriel remains an accessible, deeply appealing figure, notwithstanding stubborn notes of entitlement.
On one level, the film can be classified as a journey of discovery, but what deepens interest is the way Barbosa constantly asks the viewer to question what it means to travel. Gabriel (João Pedro Zappa) bristles at the idea that he’s a tourist, insisting on the more egalitarian word “traveler.” He believes he can approach the people he encounters on their own level, yet the truth is far less cut-and-dry than he’ll admit: He’s white, he goes to touristy places, he carries the Lonely Planet guide to Africa, and whether or not he’s wearing a Maasai “shuka,” he cannot blend. He believes he can “delve into the soul of Africa,” but he’ll always have one foot elsewhere, no matter how hard he tries to convince himself that his locally made rubber sandals mark him as authentically African.
The most immediately striking element of Gabriel’s personality is his sense of urgency, as his outsize appetite matches his impatience to achieve his goals. He’s set the year aside to travel the world, first in Asia and now Africa, before heading to a Ph.D. program in public policy at UCLA (he’s still smarting from a rejection by Harvard). The film picks him up in Kenya, 70 days before his death, staying with a local family (which later named their son for him). After climbing Kilimanjaro in impressive time, he heads to Dar Es Salaam to meet girlfriend Cristina (Caroline Abras), who’s joining him following a conference in South Africa.
Barbosa and his actors do a beautiful job of investing audience emotions in the couple’s relationship. He’s more self-centered and hands-on, she’s more moody and theoretical, but their pleasure in each other’s company is so affectionately realized that we don’t need Rhosinah Sekeleti’s voiceover when she says, “He should have married Cristina — they were really in love.” But it’s nice to hear just the same. Could their argument over poverty policy have been cut? Possibly, but it serves to reinforce Gabriel’s innate privileged attitudes; his contradictions make him human.
Ultimately, that’s what gives the film its emotional core: The undercurrent of first- (or second-) world privilege partly oblivious to its sense of entitlement is an important element here, along with questions about whether we ever cast off our otherness. And yet the movie is a tribute — a gift, really — to the memory of a friend who died much too young.
Gabriel’s joy in a sense of brotherhood, his hunger for new experiences and his love for Cristina give him depth. Yes, he’s rude to Rashidi Athuman, the safari guide who treats him like all the other tourists, and his ability to withstand discomfort in Africa is mitigated by the knowledge that he’ll be claiming all the advantages of white America when he gets to UCLA. Notwithstanding these flaws, he’s an enjoyable companion throughout the film.
Zappa deserves a great deal of credit for making Gabriel so vibrant, and Barbosa has done an exceptional job melding his and Abras’ performances with those of the non-professionals who recreate their interactions with Gabriel from eight years earlier. Shooting in so many extremely difficult locations must have generated a wealth of stories, no doubt warranting a significant making-of extra to accompany the DVD down the road. Once again, laurels go to Pedro Sotero, Brazil’s reigning cinematographer, whose works with Kleber Mendonça Filho and Barbosa have brought him to the peak of his field — now in more ways than one.