Brazilian director Fellipe Barbosa opens “Gabriel and the Mountain” with one long take from a fixed point, as two Malawi grass-cutters dwarfed by a stunning mountain range methodically make their way toward us, until one of them, at the base of a huge rock, calls out what is translated in English as, “I found the white one.” In other words, he’s discovered the body of 28-year-old Gabriel Buchmann, who in real life was an outgoing Brazilian graduate student in economics who’d gone missing for weeks in the summer of 2009 at the tail end of a yearlong trip throughout southeast Africa.
Barbosa grew up with Gabriel — their Rio de Janeiro high school was the setting of Barbosa’s feature debut “Casa Grande.” That personal connection imbues the filmmaker’s dramatic re-creation of his friend’s joy-filled, peripatetic journey from hospitable huts to gorgeous waterfalls and finally his tragic fate on a mountain, with an inevitable mix of wonder and melancholy. The result is a beautifully filmed, subtly political travelogue with some central conundrums: Is Gabriel (played with childlike brio by João Pedro Zappa) the model tourist of privilege or a foolhardy one? Is he escaping life or embracing it? At the very least, with “Gabriel and the Mountain,” Barbosa wants to know if the answers lie in retracing this willful foreigner’s bounding, unstoppable steps.
The initial sense as the movie begins 70 days before his death, watching the restless, smiling Gabriel immerse himself in Kenyan village life, going on hunts and drinking with locals, is that his energy is infectious, and his motives pure. He’s there to have a good time, but he’s also researching poverty for when he returns to study at UCLA, making sure he spends in the communities, and learns as he goes.
When he’s gifted a ceremonial staff, colorful local garb and steel sword, Gabriel is like the happiest boy, even if his occasional playacting — like an enthusiastic costume party participant — has the faintest whiff of cultural condescension. Nevertheless, he charms many with his eagerness to absorb, pushing himself to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro even though he’s woefully unprepared for its arduousness.
When Gabriel’s girlfriend Cristina (a wonderful Caroline Abras) joins him in Tanzania, the intricacies of companionship take over. As they trek from there to Zambia, we see his wildly romantic, loving side, but also a testier one, likelier to play the arrogant traveler card, as when he accuses a safari guide (Rashidi Athuman) of overcharging or argues with a waitress over a tourist trap restaurant’s rules. Through Cristina’s admiration and exasperation, played with heartfelt intensity by Abras, we grasp Gabriel’s complications: to be seen as a “Mzungu” — or rich white tourist — is anathema to him, and yet it’s also who he is. Maybe, as rendered by Barbosa and dimensionalized by Zappa, he’s simply the most palatably human version of it.
The movie’s physical authenticity is also a plus, especially masterful cinematographer Pedro Sotero’s acutely naturalistic visuals, through which Africa is never merely a backdrop, always present and breathing. And because Gabriel was found with all his belongings, including diaries and film rolls, Barbosa could be painstaking across four countries with the mile-marker accuracy of his storytelling. He not only was able to film exactly where Gabriel was — even making the trek to Kilimanjaro’s peak — but also cast the various Africans who had exchanges with him as guides or brokers or fast friends, as themselves. Their occasional voice-over remembrances of Gabriel, even Athuman’s mournful words about a difficult customer, only add to the warm mosaic of Barbosa’s carefully wrought, mysterious, and bittersweet elegy to this missed “white one.”
‘Gabriel and the Mountain’
In English, Portuguese, Swahili, Chichewa and French with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.