Here’s the thing about travel nightmares and existential crises, we’ve all had them. Jungle, based on Israeli adventurer, author and humanitarian Yossi Ghinsberg’s memoir of the same name, puts both on display to horrifying effect. This travel diary gone awry does to hiking in the Amazon what “Brokedown Palace” did to Thailand (in my 14-year old mind, at least).
In 1981, much to the disappointment of his parents, Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, “Imperium”) embarked on a yearlong backpacking trip throughout South America. On the shores of Lake Titicaca, Yossi and his new friends — Marcus (Joel Jackson, “Safe Harbour” TV series) the Swiss teacher and Kevin (Alex Russell, “Carrie”) the headstrong photographer — are among a throng of young tourists taken to exploring the area and its local hallucinogenic delights.
In an early scene, while lazily hammocking at camp, Yossi is spied reading Albert Camus’ “A Happy Death.” It espouses the notion that existentialism emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development, and that agency reflects a condition of existence. “A Happy Death” — divided into two depressingly titled parts (“Natural Death” and “Conscious Death”) — concerns itself with the act of will to consciously create one’s happiness: “Only it takes time to be happy. A lot of time. Happiness, too, is a long patience.” Screenwriter Justin Monjo relies on the intertextuality of Camus’ narrative to further inform his adaptation of Yossi’s. For Yossi, a young man with presumably all the time (and hubris) in the world, happiness means time to escape the well-worn path. So far, his travels — while by no means ordinary — have not veered far from the path of the classic gap-yeared outdoorsy types. He is eager to exercise the last human freedom of choosing his own way.
Back in La Paz, Yossi encounters a mysterious character offering a truly unique expedition into the uncharted Amazon in search of gold in a remote indigenous village. This trip would represent a real adventure, stretching far beyond the guidebooks of the traditional tourist experience. This mansplaining guide, Karl (Thomas Kretschmann, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”), set off all my own personal alarm bells, but our adventurers are none too concerned and excitedly follow him into the untamed Bolivian jungle.
Greg McLean’s filmmaking is as immersive as the Amazonian jungle. The sounds of swarming insects, machetes slicing through brush, rushing rivers, and wildlife drown out most others, and create a general feeling of uneasiness. To McLean’s credit, the audience intuits that this backpacking trip is not going to end well. Although, this being a true story, most know the basic conceit going in. The cinematography mirrors the characters’ visual and experiential points of view. When Marcus falls behind, he is filmed in disorienting slo-motion. When the crew runs a river in a surprisingly well-constructed raft, they are filmed with the shaky-cam speed of incoming rapids. These more intimate portrayals are intercut with sweeping long-range shots that show the full scope of the beautiful, but dangerous, landscape and have the unsettling effect of making Yossi appear small and insignificant in its presence. At one point, while trying to use the river as his guide, Yossi treks in a large circle, ending his day in the same place it began. Escaping the jungle is Sisyphean task if there ever was one.
Jungle is often beautiful and, during many scenes, very difficult to watch. Deliberately so. There are multiple scenes lingering on horribly blistered feet, grotesque kills begetting unsavory meals, and one particularly gruesome encounter with a parasite. Overlooking the egregious Israeli accent, which is abandoned as quickly as the initial voiceover structure, Radcliffe gives a convincing performance as Yossi, fully inhabiting the physically and emotionally brutal role.
By Part Two, Camus’ protagonist successfully pursues happiness by abandoning the world. I would argue that Yossi and McLean do not subscribe to this theory. The trio of backpackers are happiest when providing medical treatment to the villagers or playing soccer with the children or unwittingly giving the local women a show as they bathe in the river. During Yossi’s solo journey, he experiences hallucinations, family flashbacks, and even imagines an indigenous travel companion to help guide and protect. In pursuit of happiness, he did not abandon the world. The world abandoned him. And he sought out human connection — however fabricated and fleeting — to keep him going. As someone known to choose her own happiness (and coincidentally traveling to Bolivia next month!), this true story hit a little too close to home.