Though the title is awkward in English, “Jonathas’ Forest” is anything but clumsy. Freshman helmer Sergio Andrade, together with tyro d.p. Yure Cesar (they collaborated on shorts), deliver a striking feature notable in many departments, not least for the nuanced, perceptive take on Amazonia and its inhabitants. Presenting the jungle as a world whose postlapsarian fringes have yet to infect its core, the pic dispenses with typical Latin American magical realism while still conjuring an uncontrollable, transformative place whose energy affects natives and outsiders alike. Fests should flock to “Forest,” whose roots could penetrate Euro arthouse soil.
The pic’s beauty lies in its delineation of protag and place — not interchangeable, though equally important — as well as in its lensing. Andrade, himself from the Amazon, has an insider’s knowledge of the ultimate unknowability of the jungle, just as he’s witnessed the changes wrought in the region by tourism and the encroachment of so-called civilization. Taking as inspiration a tragic story from 2008, when 18-year-old Jonathan dos Santos Alves died from exposure after being lost in the jungle, the helmer creates a viewpoint both inside the young man’s mind and outside, in the realm of objectivity.
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The film opens with an enigmatic shot of an indigenous man staring into the camera; sounds of the forest give way to airplane noise followed by wind and rain. It’s a subtle way of encapsulating what’s to come, the mysterious balance between man and nature and the ultimate inviolability of the Amazon’s unfathomable heart, even in the face of modern technology.
Jonathas (assured newcomer Bege Muniz) lives with his parents and older brother, Juliano (Italo Castro), on the outskirts of the jungle, selling tropical produce to passing motorists. Dad Vladimir (Francisco Mendes) is increasingly intolerant of Juliano’s irresponsible ways, and even Jonathas is tired of covering for his bro whenever an attractive passing tourist succumbs to his charms. For Juliano, these pickups are a way of escaping the monotony of the place, while for the female visitors, it’s a chance to taste yet another exotic fruit of the Amazon.
His sons’ proposed camping trip to the nearby jungle angers Vladimir, but the two boys go anyway with Ukrainian visitor Milly (Viktoryia Vinyarska) and native Kedassere (Alex Lima). Overconfident in his wilderness skills, Jonathas wanders off to experience the forest alone, but finds it impossible to retrace his steps, and with no cell-phone signal, he’s soon hopelessly lost.
As Jonathas shifts into panic and eventual hallucination, the jungle reveals herself as a disquieting world outside our conception of time or space. That Jonathas is going through the inchoate turmoil of being a teenager adds to the anxiety.
Less successful is Andrade’s handling of Vladimir, a stocky bundle of anger whose moment of drama, when he kicks Juliano out for insubordination, feels too scripted; conversely, the boys’ mother (Socorro Papoula) is underwritten. But these are minor quibbles in comparison with the overall conception, and Muniz’s pitch-perfect ability to project Jonathas’ largely wordless struggle with himself and his place in his environment.
Cesar’s rich lensing captures all of this, from dappled green light and nature’s wonders to unsettled states that seem to pulse with invisible energy. Editing and sound, both under the sure guidance of Fabio Baldo, are conceived with remarkable sophistication.