Yulene Olaizola presents a nightmarish thriller based on Central American folklore, but its opaqueness makes it hard to truly grasp.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 New York Film Festival.
Imagine a film that could show the point-of-view of an ocean. Not just set in an ocean, mind you, but from the perspective of a natural environment. Any IMAX museum documentary can take you to majestic landscapes, but could cinema actually bring the viewer into an ecosystem? Instead of observing nature, would it be possible for us to see nature observing us?
In The Tragic Jungle, Mexican filmmaker Yulene Olaizola attempts as much. Set in the 1920s on the border of Mexico and Belize (then British Honduras), the NYFF selection follows Agnes (Indira Andrewin, in her debut performance) as she flees marriage to an old rich controlling British prick (Dale Carley). She and her sister Florence, along with a guide, slowly traverse the Mayan jungle. They’re searching for some escape – until the trio is ambushed by the gentleman’s hired guns, leaving only Agnes alive.
She’s rescued – or maybe captured – by a group of gum workers. As we see in the opening scene, they make their living climbing the tall Chile trees, and slicing their machetes into the sides. Systematically, they harvest the sap, leaving flesh-colored marks on the trunks they’ve drained. At first, the band of eight – make that seven – men agree to leave Agnes be, but a language barrier and their inability to conceptualize her as a person mean their restraint doesn’t last for long.
These men – working for pennies, employed by an unseen boss – are both victims and villains, neither entirely blameless nor entirely evil. Where another film may have waded into the nuanced waters of moral distinctions, the Jungle doesn’t get caught on the complicated. Agnes and her surroundings slowly turn the tables on the invaders, as everyone’s anxiety mounts. Throughout, oblique Terrence Malick-esque voiceover connects what we’re seeing to mythological tradition, chiefly around the presence of a dryad-like siren of La Xtabay.
Still, I’m not much of an outdoorsman. Olaizola and cinematographer Sofía Oggioni shoot everything in a slow, almost objective style – this trip upriver looks opposite the hazy, fever dream of Apocalypse Now. The Tragic Jungle is in no hurry, making its 96-minute runtime feel far longer. These images are rich, yes, but they’re also so matter-of-fact. It’s tough to soak up the cinematography’s significance and meaning – which becomes a problem when there’s not much in the way of dialogue or character to compensate.
In the end, the side of Tragic Jungle that’s most likely to linger is Andrewin’s performance. Like all the actors here, the script doesn’t give the actress many chances to express herself verbally – instead, she physically articulates a transformation from fish out of water to complete, sensual confidence. As the line between Agnes and the place she exists within blurs, Andrewin’s assured performance brings Olaizola’s magical realism to life. If one can’t literally make a film from the point-of-view of nature, with the help of Andrewin, Agnes acts as a suitable alternative.