In July 2009 Gabriel Buchmann, a Brazilian student researching poverty in Africa, disappeared while on the last leg of a year-long backpacking trip through the continent. Gabriel and the Mountain, a docudrama made by his friend Fellipe Barbosa, lets us know right off the bat that Gabriel's body was found by local villagers in Malawi nineteen days after he'd vanished.
The film stresses that there was no sign that he had been attacked. His possessions remained intact, among them a photo collection that — along with Gabriel's letters home, testimony from locals he befriended and from Cristina Reis, the girlfriend who traveled with Gabriela part of the way through Tanzania and Zambia — allowed Barbosa to retrace much of his journey with a 13-person film crew. The crew went up and down Mount Kilimanjaro with Barbosa, a hint that he and his friend bonded in shared obsessive tendencies.
If the film were only a road trip garnished with lions and giraffes and hacked into country-by-country, a documentary might have sufficed. The mystery here, though, is less how Gabriel died than what led him to take so few measures to avoid dying of exposure — if avoidance was ever on the agenda. Gabriel and the Mountain is Barbosa's fond, yet clear-eyed inquiry into how his childhood buddy's mercurial temperament fed into his fate. Using professional actors to play Gabriel and Cristina and an array of non-pro African villagers to remember and re-enact their versions of the story, Barbosa tracks the feverish ups and downs of his friend's journey through his charming, maddening character.
As played by João Pedro Zappa and scripted by Barbosa with Lucas Paraizo and Kirill Mikhanovsky, Gabriel emerges as something of a mirror image to the wanderer played by Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn's 2007 Into the Wild. An idealist dedicated to "non-touristic, sustainable travel," Gabriel is an open-faced innocent who careens between ecstasy and despair, who can delight those he befriended (they are legion) one minute and drive them nuts the next. His idea of going native, to the amusement of Cristina (Caroline Abras) and the locals, involves carrying a staff and wrapping himself in brightly colored fabric. When his new friends talk him into killing and roasting a rabbit, he's astonished when they tell him he's the only meat-eater around the fire.
If the first half of Gabriel and the Mountain sets up Gabriel's often confused attempts not to come off as a Mzunga (white outsider), the second digs deeper into Gabriel's erratic temper via his relationship with Cristina (Caroline Abras), who in real life consulted on the film. They make an appealingly lusty, passionately idealistic, occasionally absurd pair who share an expansive taste for trying on the new. But where Cristina understands the difference between calculated and foolhardy risk, Gabriel operates without filter or boundaries. As they begin to quarrel, they mark out the difference between adventure and the kind of careless folly that endangers others as well as the self.
Toward the end of the film, a guide warns the young traveler that he doesn't have time to get up and down his last mountain safely. Vowing to continue alone, Gabriel presses his hiking boots on the reluctant man, insisting that he will be fine in sandals. A woman climber at the foot of Mount Mulanje warns him again. Nothing doing: We see him whoop and gambol his way up the craggy slopes like a baby goat set free of the flock — then begin to whimper as his footwear fails him and he loses his bearings in a gathering storm.
Does Gabriel and the Mountain add up to any more than a parable of reckless youth? Barbosa remains appropriately opaque about cause and motive. He nods briefly at Gabriel's ongoing grief over the death of his father four years earlier. Perhaps, too, he was flirting with suicide. Certainly we see enough of his instability to make it a fair bet that, had he lived, Gabriel would have continued to struggle with emotional volatility.
This is not a hero's journey, though, and wisely, Barbosa doesn't romanticize Gabriel or his efforts to become one with the object of his studies. The director's here to honor his friend, and in keeping his head close to the ground of Gabriel's final journey, he slips in a broader view of the strange tangles that can clog the encounter between passionate ideals and hard reality.