Exploration Directed Inward: James Gray’s The Lost City Of Z

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[pictured-writer/director James Gray on location Columbia South America 2015]

“The rise of science in the nineteenth century had had a paradoxical effect: while it undermined faith in Christianity and the literal word of the Bible, it also created an enormous void for someone to explain the mysteries of the universe that lay beyond microbes and evolution and capitalist greed.”

“Exploration…no longer seemed aimed at some outward discovery; rather, it was directed inward…”

– David Grann / The Lost City Of Z: A Tale Of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon

Lieutenant Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett DSO was a British geographer, artillery officer, cartographer, archaeologist, and outspoken advocate for the belief of a greater civilization in the Amazon jungle more ancient and complex than any in recorded history.  His belief in learning, not destroying, the indigenous cultures within this dense landscape went against most fellowships within the Royal Geographical Society in the dawn of the 20th century.  Percy Fawcett undertook several trips into South America looking for a fabled city (of gold) and fell in love (some say obsessed) with the jungle in the process.  It consumed much of his life, to the detriment of his devoted loving wife and three children.

American writer and director James Gray (“The Immigrant”, “We Own The Night”, “Two Lovers”) has produced a literate and astoundingly beautiful treatise on the explorer spirit turned inward with an all consuming passion.  Based upon the bestselling non-fiction book by David Grann, Percy Fawcett is a fascinating figure who understood the ramifications of exploration and yet, chose to forge ahead for the adventure of seeking to rewrite the history of civilization that he believed was far greater than his own, hidden deep inside the Amazon jungle.  Another fascinating facet was his marriage to his wife, Nina, which was one of equality and respect (practically unheard of in that time and age).  The relationship mirrors another real-life 19th century romance between Sir Richard Francis Burton (explorer, writer) and his wife Isabel (see Bob Rafelson’s “Mountains Of The Moon”, an near great depiction of Burton).  Nina’s devotion, knowledge, and passion were equal to her husband’s in many ways and soon paved the way to his legacy and their story today.

Die versunkene Stadt Z

“The Lost City Of Z” (prounounced Zed) is an adventure film, but one that provokes thoughts and questions, rather than slam bang action sequences.  Trekking through the jungle requires iron will and stamina.  There are sequences which remind viewers of just how unforgiving this terrain can be with piranhas, disease, madness, and the threat of instant death around every turn of the river.  The persistence of Gray’s script is to detail what drives humans to that razor’s edge of mental exhaustion for the sake of knowledge and a greater love that no other has experienced.  Not only does Fawcett, along with his wife Nina at home, explore unknown lands, but they both explore the limits of themselves.  Society usually does not favor the forward thinkers, the humans who seek far beyond the norms of conventional wisdom.  Fawcett was much criticized for most of his career.  It is only much later do we, as a society, reexamine and realize some were ahead of their time in deeds and actions.

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The film itself boasts a terrific script which never lends itself to flashy trendy flourishes.  It is set in a specific time and place which never feels false.  The seventies vibe is added with the help of directory of photography, Darius Khondji (Midnight In Paris, Se7en, My Blueberry Nights), with a smoky light-filtering glow which harks back to another Amazonian adventure, Werner Herzog’s 1972 “Aquirre, The Wrath Of God”.  The production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos hones those early times with authenticity and beauty.  The break-out acting of Charlie Hunnam (Percy Fawcett), an unrecognizable and excellent Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin), the intelligent radiance of Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett), and a tragic Angus Macfayden (James Murray) round out a cast that rings true to the proceedings thanks to Gray’s sensitive direction.

What truly makes this a must-see film is Gray’s audacity to tell his story in his own way filled with beautiful words, mystery, and the simple magic of cinema tools.  Nothing flashy here, just good old fashioned story telling.  Adventure films aspire to give the viewer a sense of wonder and place one totally within their world.  “The Lost City Of Z” succeeds on these levels and still has room to make us think in terms of history and the folly of such human endeavors.  Lastly, without giving anything away, director Gray fashions one of the best endings in recent memory.  His choice perfectly captures the inner mind of a particular character that is simply haunting and gorgeous to behold.

This is a beautiful and terrifying film that requires repeated viewings to catch all the filmmaker’s intentions on screen.  It is truly an adventure of the mind and spirit.

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“The Lost City Of Z” [2017 2hrs 21min] written/directed by James Gray, photographed by Darius Khondji

 

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