The State of Nature 

Jean-Gentil-bike.jpg

Jean Gentil
Directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas

Backstory in Jean Gentil is as shallow and as deep as a single take, a creeping zoom on its protagonist—a mysterious character named Jean Remy Genty, played by an actor credited as Jean Remy—resting against a cement pillar, quietly praying for help during a desolate afternoon of job-hunting. He's a former language teacher from Haiti, wandering the streets of Santo Domingo in a stained Oxford shirt with a pocket protector and a wad of useless diplomas. Eventually his long drift finds him in the jungle scavenging for yams and coconuts; Jean morphs from a wallflower to all but an apparition, emaciated and mumbling until he quietly fuses himself into the local agriculture. And no—the why of Jean's inner disorder is never psychologically explained.

His conversations with "normal" fellow Haitians tend towards the dead-ended, like when a construction worker busts his chops about being a middle-aged virgin: "You're a more handsome guy than me," he says. "But, you have to say pretty things to women." Jean protests that he "always" uses honeyed words, and the man quickly amends himself: "You have to grab their ass too." Like Lee Isaac Chung or Kelly Reichardt, husband-and-wife directing duo Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas seem to pride themselves on their sensitivity to how long certain things—walking through a tropical thicket, desperately negotiating for a place to stay the night—actually take. Highlighting the unknowability of the characters, it's a style that can foster a concept of melodrama (per our European-spawned models, at least) as yet another upper-class luxury, usually while also making less adventuresome watchers fidget impatiently in their seats.

There's a sad irony to the opening credits, even—a staggeringly long list of government agencies, cultural nonprofits and production firms emblazoned against Jean's back while he shuffles uphill during a milky dusk, all adding up to "Jean Gentil." This is a movie equally wary of blanket statements about poverty and bullshit return-to-nature triumphalism. Emotionally barren, it splits open the paradoxical way most still think about so-called "developing" nations: lush landscapes sullied only by pesky "political" problems. Grilled by a potential employer, Jean drops the screenplay's one explicit hint to his depression, also subtly implicating audiences: "I'm not living life. I only see other people living."

Opens April 20 at Anthology Film Archives

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