The Lost City of Z screened this past weekend as the closing night film of the 54th New York Film Festival. Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street will release the film theatrically this April. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
“It’s about the search for the sublime.” That’s how New York Film Festival programmer Kent Jones described the colonial-era jungle adventure The Lost City of Z, writer-director James Gray’s latest film (very much a film, gorgeously shot on 35mm by the incomparable Darius Khondji and projected on celluloid—an increasing rarity—at its premiere). It’s possible to ascribe that “sublime” aim to all art (though rare are the works that achieve it). But could we also talk of human existence in this way? That the ultimate goal of living is, quite simply, to have lived—as deeply and profoundly as possible.
Gray’s protagonist, actual British military man/archaeologist Percy Fawcett (a never-better Charlie Hunnam), whose exploits were detailed in a book, also called The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, might seem an unlikely candidate for the examined life. When we first meet him, he’s very much the Edwardian-era social climber, striving to gain position among men in power who lament his “unfortunate choice of ancestors.” A chance to map an uncharted region of Bolivia—a thinly veiled colonialist effort to maintain the status quo of the country’s foreign-run rubber industry—affords him the opportunity to raise his rank, as well as the social standing of his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their growing family. But the trip, on which he is accompanied by a loyal lush of an aide-de-camp named Henry Costin (subtle scene-stealer Robert Pattinson), changes Fawcett irrevocably after he discovers evidence of a lost civilization and a golden city that he nicknames “Zed.”
“Zed” is like Captain Ahab’s white whale in Moby-Dick, though Fawcett’s obsession is not vengeful and rigid, but curious and ever-shifting. The unknown city is the ghostly projection of the character’s own desires and disappointments, all unavoidably colored by his honorable commitment to queen and country. Fawcett’s motives are often pure (and become more so as he ages), but they exist within condescendingly corrupt structures that devalue rather than delve into the “other” and the connections all of us share. Early in the film, Fawcett is told by a South America-transplanted European (Franco Nero) that his mapping efforts will “keep things the same.” The challenge then becomes to push against that dehumanizing stagnancy, Sisyphus-like, until the accumulation of knowledge and experience (within stuffy British high society, on several illuminating returns to the jungle, and deep in the demoralizing trenches during WWI) becomes its own reward.
Gray’s unique aesthetic—very sober and methodical beneath all the elliptical visual lushness—allows us to see how Fawcett’s perspective shifts, minutely though intensely, over a lifetime. And also to examine how his evolving wisdom affects his colleagues and family, not always for the better. The character of Nina is most fascinating in this regard, a stay-at-home wife (in the broad stroke) with a deep self-awareness of her station in life that comes off as intriguingly nebulous. (It’s as if she’s stuck in some strange limbo between suffering and suffrage.) Gray grants her the film’s powerful final sequences, in which she effectively becomes the living witness to her husband’s exploits and, in a literal moment of reflection, reveals how the pursuit of enlightenment (among people of all stripes) is a never-ending yet wholly necessary struggle.