In Jean Gentil, a man looks for a job in a cacophonous city that wouldn’t notice if he had never existed. He’s wearing a tie and the kind of sadness that removes from the face any immediately recognizable expression—the awkward and self-effacing sadness of the unwelcome immigrant. The man (Jean Gentil, playing a filmic version of himself) is an unemployed Haitian polyglot in Santo Domingo with a background in accounting and a tendency to question whether or not he’s even alive. While initially aiming for an office job in line with his experience and goals, he quickly has to settle for a construction job and a hard floor to sleep on after being evicted. He eventually makes his way to the countryside, where he retreats from the unforgiving madness of the big city and, ironically, away from “civilization” he can finally find a place to sleep, something to eat, and water to bathe.
Filmmakers Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas have crafted a beautiful tale of alienation, solitude, and existential anxiety, respecting very basic rules of European cinema of the best kind: Jean Gentil is you and I, and his story unfolds with the unhurriedness of real time. The film has echoes of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth in the way it offers us the experience of a misery produced by the dehumanizing force of large urban centers, as well as the way it brings the marginal to the center of our gaze and our hearing. It’s interested in the normally unnoticed sounds and unassuming corners of the everyday. Gentil sometimes speaks to his God in Haitian Creole, asking him for a miracle, much in the same way that Ventura, the homeless mourner in Costa’s film, spoke to his estranged lover as if she could hear him. But once Gentil leaves the city for the woods, the film resembles more Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. The signs are less literal, the dialogue sparser, the forest’s silence replaces the urban cacophony as the disturbing reminder of the insignificance of the individual—or at least some of them.
Jean Gentil is like a stinging and atmospheric Marxist anecdote, where certain bodies are both useless as human beings and yet fundamental to building the structures that shelter other, more useful and legitimate bodies. As Jean Gentil and others like him slave away to erect the high-rises that will serve as corner offices for the few who get away, none of them will ever get to profit from or even be let inside the fruits of their labor.