“The Lost City of Z” follows the life of Percy Fawcett, and his many exploratory journeys to South America which became searches for a supposed lost city in the jungles of Brazil called “Z”. It a stunning, ambitious epic of a film, a story told so strangely, but with such confidence, precision, and scale.
For the first quarter of the film it appears to be a “journey down the river” film in the vein of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” or “Apocalypse Now”, but then that journey down the river is finished, and Fawcett returns home. The scale of the film begins to reveal itself through this odd pacing, as director James Gray sets his sights less on a wilderness adventure story and more on an epic and character study exploring the different drives and yearnings inherent to humans (whether for something great and elemental beyond reach, as with Fawcett and eventually his wife, or for dominion over others, as with the imperialists and the warring tribes – these two very different drives, internal and external, pervade all the characters of the film). The complex tangled relationship characters have with such drives are treated with curiosity in the film – it’s notable how starkly Fawcett’s crystal-eyed recognition of the realities behind conceptions of race and colonialism contrast with his thought-terminating attitude towards gender. The film is so deeply concerned with how “so much of life is a mystery”, both in the smallest personal and largest macro ways.
Each journey to South America becomes like a microcosm of humanity, Fawcett and those around him avatars to explore what drives humans. Z functions as a symbol for many things – redemption, glory, a way to right the world, the connection of humanity, negation of the axioms and inequalities underpinning society – that mapping just any one symbol onto it doesn’t work so well as taking it as a broader symbol for human yearning, human drive, almost more a case of religious projection than geographic question. Gray ends the film selling this point with a creative visual, of a more heightened reality than the rest of the film, which feels very earned after the harrowing final sequences of the film which are so intimately shot and performed that it does feel like the film ascends to a point where it earns going a bit beyond direct depictions of reality (the gutsy ending of the film refuses the sort of easy answers that would have been tempting for a biopic of Fawcett).
The composition of shots in the film, the use of shadows, it often evokes paintings, and nearly constantly evokes epics of an earlier time, like the 70s, it’s a formal, sustained, very confidently made film that doesn’t really look like any of its cinematic peers today. This disconnect helps the exceedingly earnest tone of the film work; it feels of a different time, though its themes are of course universal.
A magnificently sustained, sprawling exploration of the human condition. Four and a half rations, and a compass.