Ever since John Boorman has had the chance to direct the films he wanted to make, he's been working on a single subject: man's relation to nature, and particularly what has been lost by modern society which was taken for granted by primitive man. Boorman hasn't always been successful. Deliverance, while it worked nicely as suspense, didn't display his ideas very well. Exorcist II: The Heretic was laughably bad, as only a really ambitious film can be, and Zardoz was peculiar and ineffective. With Excalibur, Boorman began to get it right. Excalibur had moments of power, and approached greatness. It fell short because of Boorman's overambition, apparently his greatest artistic flaw, manifested in this case by an attempt to shoehorn the whole of the backbone of Arthurian legend into little over two hours. Now, finally, Boorman has managed to find the perfect vehicle for his obsessions. The Emerald Forest is everything hinted at in his early films, brought to fruition.
Based on a true story, The Emerald Forest concerns a father's hunt for his son, lost in the Amazonian jungle. The search continues for ten years, as the son grows from a seven-year-old boy to a seventeen-year-old man under the protection of the Invisible People, a primitive tribe whose members paint their bodies with emerald dust and other pigments to blend into the forest. When the father finally finds his son, the boy become man is fully one of the tribe, with a surrogate father and no desire to leave. Ironically, however, the dam which the father has been constructing nearby threatens the Invisible People, both immediately and in a subtler but more certain way in the long run. The dam has displaced the Fierce People, a tribe of savage cannibal, causing them to move into the hunting grounds of the Invisible People. And the dam has provided power and an incentive to bring more people into the area, resulting in a shrinkage of the surprisingly delicate jungle before the inroads of men and machinery. The body of the film concerns the tribe's attempt to survive in the face of these threats.
An important subtext in almost all of Boorman's films has been a belief in magic as practiced by primitive societies. Magic has an important place in The Emerald Forest. Whether or not Tomme, the son, actually joins souls with an eagle during his hallucinatory initiation into manhood is less important than the positive effect the experience has on him. But beyond mere effect, Boorman is a believer in magic, which he sees as one of the important things we have lost in our conversion to a society of machines and science. Boorman doesn't condescend to the magicians. Some of their efforts use tricks, and he doesn't step back from that. But are the tricks effective? That is the question that interests Boorman. Does the fact that the tribal chieftain palms a hot coal rather than producing it from thin air make the cure associated with it less effective? The chief himself is less concerned with the mechanics, willingly showing them to Tomme, who he regards as his own son. And, Boorman suggests, perhaps it isn't all tricks. Perhaps the primitive magics do have power of their own. Whether they do or not, the tribe's use of magic is an important sign of their oneness with nature. The Invisible People are a part of their world, not competitors with it.
The Emerald Forest is a film in which everything works. The direction, the photography, the performances, the score, the production design, all contribute to the final effect. Boorman is not your average director. Very often nowadays when I see a film, I can easily predict what will happen next, in the sense of what the next shot will be, what the angle will be, what the next plot twist will be. I can do this because cinema has conventions. Boorman isn't interested in conventions, and he has no interest in explaining what he has already shown. He has the courage and confidence to cut away from a scene when I expected it to continue. The moment he did it, I saw that the conventional continuation would have been so much dead weight, the sort of thing almost all directors, even many talented ones, wouldn't think of doing without. Boorman gives his film an unconventional feel which invites, almost demands, closer attention. But at other times, Boorman is willing to linger to achieve his effects. The Emerald Forest isn't a rollercoaster ride with the director snapping his whip to hurry the viewer along (or else). It is a film which works at its own pace rather than one dictated by other films or viewer expectations.
The performances are excellent. Powers Booth stars as the father obsessed with finding his son, driven by love and guilt. Booth shows a more human, vulnerable face than in his past roles. His character is a good man who, like most of us, hasn't thought out the effects of his actions, indeed of his way of life. Charlie Boorman, the director's son, gives nepotism a good name in his portrayal of Tomme. One moment of artifice in his performance and the entire film would have come tumbling down. Boorman is splendidly natural in a part which could not have been played by the typical Hollywood young lead actor. Meg Foster has what is, honestly, a nothing part as the mother. What little she has to do she does well. Rui Polonah is excellent as the leader of the Invisible People. Like the other actors portraying the Indians, Polonah is a city dwelling Indian. His comfort in the jungle environment, the absolute feeling of belonging that he gives could never have been attained by a professional actor. All of the performers playing tribespeople give their scenes an easy sense of community which makes it possible to believe that we are glimpsing the routines they perform every day.
Rospo Pallenberg's script is a fine piece of work. The dialog (much of it in subtitles) is good, the story is well paced, and Pallenberg has some surprises which reveal the fundamental differences between our world and that of the Amazonian tribes. He displays a true understanding of their world, as much as any outsider can understand it.
All of the technical work is splendid, from Philippe Rousselot's clear, focused photography to Ian Crafford's well timed editing to the part electronic, part native Amazonian score by Junior Homrich and Brian Gascoigne. The body makeup done by Peter Frampton deserves special note, as it is fundamental to the identities of the two tribes. All details of production design on The Emerald Forest merit praise.
If The Emerald Forest has a flaw, it is that the late middle of the film isn't quite up to what comes before. Earlier in the film, I thought to myself, "if he can keep it up, Boorman will have one of the best adventure films ever made, and one of the most intellectually interesting ones, too". Boorman couldn't quite keep it up. One of his major action scenes works well enough, but doesn't have the extra thrill that sets a good scene apart from a great one. Here, Boorman's disregard for convention cost him something, for he didn't follow the standard way of doing the scene, but didn't come up with a particularly interesting alternative, either. He makes up for it by providing a good finale, but I still wish he had done better with the earlier sequence.
The summer is progressing rather oddly. Several of the expected blockbuster action films have come up short of success, while more serious films have proved to be unusually good. A time of year normally blessed with little but fluff has turned out to have much more substance than anyone predicted. The Emerald Forest is a particularly pleasing film, as it should appeal to a broad range of viewers, both those who like adventure films and those who prefer deeper material. The Emerald Forest is one of the two or three best films of the year. See it in the best theater possible, preferably in 70mm, Dolby sound, and a special sound system (such as THX), as its visual scope and beautifully mixed sound deserve the finest presentation available.
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