The Lost City of Z

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

Directed by James Gray, the Lost City of Z is based on a real-life figure who tried to do something well beyond his abilities. Although it is not an epic in the literal sense of the word, it tells the story of an avid explorer who went to the Amazon to discover a long lost civilisation existing somewhere in South America. 7 out of 10.

Behind every great movie, there is an obsessed filmmaker. Early on from the beginning of film history, movies have been notoriously hard and expensive to make.

D.W. Griffith found this out when he directed his 1916 “Intolerance”, in the process bankrupting himself. David O. Selznick, one of Hollywood’s most potent producers, went through five directors to make “Gone with the Wind” fit his visions. Selznick’s British counterpart, Alexander Korda, went through a similar sum of directors for his wonderful technicolor adventure “The Thief of Baghdad.”

Directors tend to be even more fixated when it comes to their personal visions. Most famous is probably Francis Ford Coppola, who, according to himself, went crazy while making one of the greatest war movies of all time, “Apocalypse Now.” I am inclined to believe that he did go crazy because Coppola, director of “The Godfather” movies and “The Conversation”, was never again able to make a movie that even remotely compared to his 1970s work.

The “Lost City of Z” is not an epic in the literal sense of the word. It does not quite reach those levels. But it is a guy about whom epics are made. A guy with which the director, James Gray, or any other for that matter, who at one time or another have had to make an independent movie, could relate to. It is about Percy Fawcett, an English explorer, who had a vision, a belief, that a long lost civilization existed somewhere in South America. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a military man knowledgeable in geography and map-making. He is also very ambitious, well-read, married and with a comfortable living. The only thing he is missing is fame and prominence. When opportunity comes calling, when he is offered a job to map out an area in Bolivia, he reluctantly accepts.

Deep in the “desert jungle” of Bolivia, Fawcett, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and the rest of their group come upon some pottery works. After having them analysed, Fawcett determines there must have been an ancient civilization, preceding that of any which prospered in Europe, in South American jungles. Far from being dispirited by his colleagues’ reluctance to accept his suggestion (How could the savage “Indians” have had a civilization?), he recurrently returns in search of the ruins of a lost city he calls “Z”.

In more than one way, “The Lost City of Z” reminds me of two Werner Herzog movies: “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” Both movies star Klaus Kinski, who was just as unhinged as the protagonists of the films. Both films trace the strange, destructive, semi-factual obsessions of bygone men who tried to conquer South American jungles. Aguirre was based on a 16th century Spanish expedition to find the mythical (they did not know this then) city of El Dorado. As the conquistadors descend deeper into the jungle, they start to go mad, and their obsessed leader, more unstable.

Fitzcarraldo is also based on a true story, of a man who attempts to bring opera to the jungle by getting rich from the rubber trade. It ends on a brighter note than Aguirre, but nonetheless the protagonist fails in his mission, perhaps showing us that the jungle is too much for man to single-handedly (without machines) conquer.

The great director Herzog has always been drawn to people with such ambitions and temperaments, probably because he is one of them. The theme of obsession was not only explored in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo but also in the making of them. Herzog fought, shouted, lied and stole his way through these movies, all the time refusing to compromise on his visions. I do not know if James Gray was as indomitable in making “The Lost City of Z”, but he has surely been influenced by Herzog.

The film is based on a real-life figure who tried to do something well beyond his abilities. It takes place in South America. The rubber trade is hinted at. There is an opera deep in the jungle. And men do go crazy. But Gray’s movie diverges in that it concerns itself with Fawcett’s life in England almost as chiefly as it does his explorations in South America. Most of these scenes deal with Fawcett’s family and colleagues. His wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), serves as a symbolic reminder of all that he leaves behind every time he attempts an exploration. His struggle with the scientific establishment shows why he does have to make these explorations.

Nothing in Gray’s career prepares us for a movie of this calibre. This is not a commercial movie; there is no climatic ending or cheap humour. The actors rarely “act” but subtly glide. There are scenes that could have been made better, more realistically, most of them the fault of the director than anyone else.

The “Lost City of Z” seems rightly comfortable in its own skin, although some audiences may find it boring or abstruse. I am not one of them.

By Christian Tesfaye
Exclusive to Fortune

Published on May 06,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 888]



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