MSPIFF Kicks Off, Ponderously, with “Lost City of Z”

MSPIFF Kicks Off, Ponderously, with “Lost City of Z”

Last night at St. Anthony Main Theatre, several people queued up to welcome us to opening night of the 36th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Alderman Jacob Frey talked about the impact the festival’s had on the neighborhood. Mayor Betsy Hodges, preaching to the decidedly converted, talked about the importance of the arts at a time when they’re under siege (*cough*nold *cough*rump). MSP Film Society staffers talked about the programming, and board member Craig Rice alluded to the last five years of transition.

That was an allusion to, among other things, the retirement of Al Milgrom — a man who was, for decades, synonymous with the society he founded and its flagship festival. MSPIFF weathered that transition, and it’s also managing to thrive in a world where the status of film itself is in rapid transition.

With streaming TV attracting ever more popular and critical attention, the movie industry finds its middle ground falling away. Event-movie blockbusters like Jurassic World and Beauty and the Beast still do well, and the film-festival circuit continues to buzz with adventurous independent films; the challenge is breaking out of that circuit to do respectable box office.

MSPIFF opener The Lost City of Z is already zooming towards its April 21 release, and it’s winning critical raves, though we’ll see what happens when — as the Replacements would put it — the shit hits the fans. It’s being sold as a stirring tale of adventure and madness, but it plays like a failed attempt to flip the script on the colonial narrative.

Writer/director James Gray adapts the acclaimed nonfiction book by David Grann, with Charlie Hunnam starring as Colonel Percy Fawcett — a British explorer who disappeared in the Brazilian jungle in 1925. Having found artifacts proving the native inhabitants have developed technology beyond what had previously been reckoned, Fawcett became convinced the ruins of a lost civilization were just around the river bend.

Shot in a series of hazes (fog, poison gas, memory) by cinematographer Darius Khondji, The Lost City of Z is most effective early on, as Fawcett makes his first forays and we’re reminded how strange, how recently, much of the world remained to the West. The film gets derailed just where it should pick up steam: as Fawcett returns to England to make his case for a return expedition. There’s an extended detour to the battlefields of France, and then it’s finally back to the jungle for a too-brief final journey.

While Fawcett had a more favorable impression of South America’s indigenous peoples than did many of his peers, Lost City of Z is still inescapably yet another story about a white guy heading into the jungle. The natives we meet don’t emerge as characters in their own right, nor does Gray dig too deeply into Fawcett’s psychological motivations for returning to the manifestly dangerous Amazon time and again.

A story arc involving Fawcett’s son (Tom Holland) grows belatedly substantive, while his wife (Sienna Miller) flattens into zombielike devotion after Fawcett shoots down her hopes of accompanying him — on the grounds that exploring is men’s work. Why, again, are we supposed to care about this guy?

Fortunately, there are thousands more characters to care about in the festival’s remaining two weeks. From @me to Zoology, you can find the complete list of films on the fest’s website. Take a chance on something that looks promising, or dig into any of the festival’s several programs. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

Jay Gabler