The compelling and quixotic true story of a British army officer who, a century ago, ventured into uncharted realms of the South American jungle in search of a presumed ancient civilization, The Lost City of Z is a rare piece of contemporary classical cinema; its virtues of methodical storytelling, traditional style and obsessive theme are ones that would have been recognized and embraced anytime from the 1930s through the 1970s. Whether they will be properly valued by more speed-minded modern audiences will only become known when this immaculate production is released next spring, a half-year after its world premiere as the closing-night attraction at this year’s New York Film Festival.
Based on David Grann’s 2009 best-seller, writer-director James Gray’s screenplay can include only a fraction of the arcane historical and cultural information conveyed in a nonfiction book. It also refrains from going in other possible directions, such as inventing adventures that didn’t happen or attaching a fashionable modern ideological agenda about the white man’s incursion into a native population’s turf.
Rather, it honors the spirit of physical risk, intellectual curiosity, individual daring and self-sacrifice (of both body and sanity) required to explore the unknown, to discover more about our origins and to map the world, which even 100 years ago had not been fully accomplished. Under scrutiny here was the interior of South America and the origins of the Amazon (was it fated that Amazon Studios should acquire the film’s North American theatrical rights?).