Jonathas’ Forest (A floresta de Jonathas)

The Act of Staring

Tommaso Tocci checks in from Rome to report on Jonathas’ Forest and finds that things are different "down in Brazil." We’re in the titular forest, that’s for sure.

They told me I was going to Brazil, but Brazil’s got nothing to do with this film, with this story.

The first minute of Jonathas’ Forest (A floresta de Jonathas) hits me hard, perhaps smelling the discomfort, the sense of displacement I’m already drenched in. It’s a sudden, prolonged close-up of a man staring back at me; he seems slightly sad, and tired. "Down in Brazil" things are different. Here, "it feels like another country." We’re in the titular forest, that’s for sure. The Amazon. Or rather, we’re on the brink of the Amazon, sitting with young Jonathas at his father’s fruit stall, idly but diligently waiting for one of the passing cars to stop and grab a bite-sized moment of exoticism. "It’s good when they come, right Dad?"

As I keep travelling, so does he. Jonathas only moves once — disobeying his father’s orders and joining his older brother in what seems an exciting camping trip into the forest with some new friends — but the entire film is built around the tension of choice that informs any travel. Should he adhere to his father’s vision, renouncing external temptations and working with him in the jungle, despite the man’s passionate but bluntly controlling manners? Or should he be more defiant, like his brother, who appears so comfortable in crossing that line and enjoying the pleasures of life? It all reminds me of a director I love, Ursula Meier, with her unique taste for the toxicity of the familiar space.

I’m with Jonathas, now. I see the sort of neat dilemma the young boy is facing. I see the path towards a straightforward bildungsroman that could be squeezed out of his story. I envy it, even. Choices come easier when they’re polarized. Instead, director Sérgio Andrade leaves me once again in his rear-view mirror. Early on he had established a motif of grim foreboding — specifically through the use of sound and a peculiar way of shooting the tree trunks, as if they’re always about to reveal their darker, dangerous side in entering the frame — and with the last act he makes true on that promise, leaving Jonathas lost in the forest.

The shift in tone is resounding; suddenly there are no more worldviews to reconcile through the motions of a coming-of-age tale. All that is left is a catastrophic collapse of synthesis. Jonathas is forever left in a state of liminality, trapped while crossing his own shadow line.

Remarkably, Andrade manages to translate this sense of suspended individual agency into a distinctive visual rhythm, juxtaposing scenes of Jonathas’ fight for survival to glimpses of his friends’ and family’s reactions to his disappearance. Initially unequivocal, the relation between the two quickly starts to muddle; a father’s prayer, a girl’s new tattoo, a mother’s silent grief — how long has it been? (How long have I travelled?). Is it still now? Or is it after? As Jonathas stares into the darkness, the ‘reverse shot’ of those left behind becomes more and more elusive, disconnected.

Which is interesting since the visual language of Jonathas’ Forest is entirely based on the act of staring as the primary mode of intercultural exchange (that’s how the foreign versus native conflict is addressed, for example). But in stretching the fibers of time — turning those final sequences into a simultaneous atemporality — Andrade upsets the balance. With nobody to hold his gaze on the other side of the shot, Jonathas slowly succumbs to a jungle that he never truly made sense of. This is more Herzog than Malick: there’s no transcendence in the surrealism of nature, only weirdness.

Tommaso Tocci is a film critic, copywriter and translator. He moves around. Twitter: @Cinelais