We're worried about Gabriel Buchmann, the main character of Gabriel and the Mountain. The young Brazilian man (played by João Pedro Zappa), who's taking a year off to travel around the world before enrolling in UCLA, is more than just the only white face in the crowd as he goes through small provincial towns in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and other East African nations. With his makeshift clothing ensemble of Indonesian sarongs topped by a Flamengo football club knit cap, he looks like a clown — or, at best, the archetypal, screw-loose hippie wanderer. We're afraid he's going to get rolled for his passport and cash, or else murdered, on general principle. He just doesn't fit in, and won't even try to.
But Gabriel's what-the-hell wardrobe doesn't tell the whole story of this atypical visitor. It's his incurable lust for experience that drives him forward in this dramatized screen version of Buchmann's true story, a Brazilian-French production written by director Fellipe Barbosa with Kirill Mikhanovsky and Lucas Paraizo. It's as if he were racing through the world trying to outrun his destiny. And having lots of fun doing so, in common with footloose vagabonds everywhere.
Gabriel and his girlfriend/part-time traveling partner Cristina (Caroline Abras) take local buses and walk dusty roads — climbing hills, eating freshly killed rabbits, having a beer with the locals, chatting up little kids, and searching out the most inspirational sights (Mt. Kilimanjaro, et al.). Gabriel prides himself on his "non-touristic and sustainable" method of getting to know each and every person they run into, listening to their stories and even lending them money. This hectic Jack Kerouac-ian way of vacationing drives Cristina a little batty, and us too. We admire Gabriel's joie de vivre but hate to see him burning himself out. How long can one undeniably energetic young man push himself into such potentially dangerous situations before he crashes into the end of the road? Spoiler alert: If you wish to experience the movie with completely fresh eyes, better stop reading here.
Gabriel and the Mountain refers to Mt. Mulanje in Malawi, the place where Gabriel was found dead in July of 2009, more than two weeks after he was reported missing. The fact of his death is established in the opening moments of the film, before the flashback that shows how he arrived there, but that doesn't lessen the impact of actor Zappa's whirlwind performance or the filmmakers' portrait of Gabriel's unquenchable zest. The film will either repel you or invigorate you, but there's an entire planet's weight of wonder and magnificence compressed into the latter viewpoint.
Gabriel reminds us of the Kerouac of Desolation Angels or Che Guevara's discovery of his social imprimatur in The Motorcycle Diaries, but also of the lonely, driven figure of Chris McCandless (impersonated by actor Emile Hirsch) in Sean Penn's Into the Wild. McCandless was a real-life character like Gabriel, and likewise mad with wanderlust and careless self-destruction. Brazilian actor Zappa gets under our skin brilliantly in the lead role. As Gabriel's journey rams forward to its pre-determined climax, we can see the combination of desperation and exhilaration on his face and in his movements. Actor Abras fills out the role of Cristina with the right combination of dedication and emotional weariness. And all the Africans they meet are played by the actual people who encountered Buchmann in his last days.
In the end, the riddle at the heart of the story has something to do with Mt. Mulanje itself, depicted late at night as a desolate, windswept, foggy place of unseen spirits and disturbing visions, playing on the mind of an unwary trekker stumbling down a rocky mountainside. The setting seems like a place made for ghosts. And yet the lasting impression made by Gabriel and the Mountain is life-affirming and ultimately joyful. Intrepid trippers, take note.