In 1999, Werner Herzog presented 12 pithy principles for documentary filmmaking at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a list which became subsequently known as “The Minnesota Declaration.” Notable among the dozen dictums is Herzog’s assertion that, “tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue,” alluding to the difference between an outsider who perpetuates a monetized vision of a place and one who travels and communicates among a local people to share in cultural and human exchange.
In Gabriel and the Mountain, writer-director Fellipe Barbosa presents a vision of international travel that unconsciously engages with Herzog’s principle. Gabriel (João Pedro Zappa), a twentysomething Brazilian traveling throughout Africa, claims that his intellectual background and comingling among natives absolves him of being called a tourist. Gabriel has recently been admitted to a PhD program at U.C.L.A. and is wrestling with what to do in the future. He’s an intelligent, if irritating, idealist, journeying across Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi to conduct research on poverty. He waxes self-righteously by straw-manning those who don’t possess his down-to-earth virtues—such as those who would talk about squalor while staying at a “five-star hotel.”
The film appears to be setting itself up to grapple with the ethical dimensions of tourism and the self-legitimizing mindset of a male intellectual who, despite ample evidence to the contrary, asserts himself as somehow outside the social and political terms that apply to others. Unfortunately, Barbosa proves unwilling to engage the full extent of his protagonist’s festering resentment (Gabriel was waitlisted at Harvard). Gabriel and the Mountain thus becomes an act of tourism itself—only superficially grasping the complex historical and psychological dimensions of its African settings.
The film’s conflicted treatment of Gabriel probably lies in the character being based on the actual travels of Barbosa’s friend of the same name, who died in 2009 while scaling Mount Mulanje in Malawi. Gabriel and the Mountain is more a reverent eulogy than a sober reflection on its main character’s flawed outlook (the film opens with a title card that reads, “In memory of my friend, Gabriel Buchmann”). While clanking wine glasses seaside in Tanzania with his girlfriend, Cristina (Caroline Abras), Gabriel gets chafed when a waitress pressures him to order some food. After she leaves, he declares, “I’m not a tourist,” though given his insecurity over the matter, it’s quite apparent that he fears he might be one. Barbosa surely recognizes as much, but keeps any greater understanding of Gabriel’s psychology at arm’s length.
Barbosa’s vision remains myopic in scope, as the filmmaker frames Gabriel’s ruder actions as minor, even charming offenses. While on a bus to Zambia, Gabriel becomes annoyed with the music playing on the vehicle’s speakers, shouting that, “Not even Jesus would like this song,” before demanding that the bus be stopped so that he can get out. Barbosa seems to think that the mere recognition of Gabriel as a narcissist sufficiently complicates the character’s sense of entitlement. Though Cristiana pushes back against her partner’s more specious proclamations, such moments are but flimsy attempts on the film’s part to grapple with its main character’s mentality.
Barbosa’s use of local, non-professional actors—some of whom even knew the real Gabriel—to play his African characters further solidifies the film’s inheritance of Gabriel’s touristy mindset, especially given that the director cast professional actors to play the leads. In making Africa a backdrop to vaguely depict the point of view of a privileged adventurer, Gabriel and the Mountain plays like a lumbering, cinema-vérité rehash of Into the Wild.