‘The Lost City of Z’ and the Elusiveness of Perfection

Commentary
By Abby Olcese 4-25-2017
Screenshot from "The Lost City of Z"/Facebook

In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett disappeared into the Amazon jungle with his son Jack and a family friend, searching for a lost South American civilization that he called the “City of Z.” This lost city was an obsession of Fawcett’s, spanning most of his professional career. His disappearance has, in turn, fascinated modern-day explorers and adventurers, including author David Grann — whose own search for Fawcett spawned a New Yorker article and eventually a book, The Lost City of Z.

Director James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, a film version of Fawcett’s story, drawn from Grann’s book, is a gorgeous, moody exercise that is equal parts character study and adventure. Gray’s portrait of Fawcett is one with an eerily timeliness — a story of a desire to find something “untouched and unspoiled” by the corrupt nature of civilization, with all the cultural and spiritual issues that might imply.

In the film, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) has his first encounter with the lost city on a harrowing 1908 expedition to trace the source of a river in Brazil. It’s a terrifying experience, complete with hostile tribes, ravenous piranhas, and exotic diseases. But it’s also an eye-opening one for Fawcett, who experiences both the power of the jungle and its inhabitants, and Western civilization’s destruction of it through colonization and enslavement. His discovery of artifacts in the jungle, coupled with stories he hears from his native guide, calls Fawcett to question the European supremacy that has dominated his education and worldview.

What begins as a quest to find the last place on earth “untouched” by modern civilization changes, as Fawcett encounters resistance at home from would-be funders who scoff at the possibility of developed civilizations that don’t involve white men. Later, the brutality Fawcett experiences during World War I redirects his obsession: a desire for to remove himself from a place grown ugly with destruction, and retreat to a kind of unspoiled utopia.

Of course, Fawcett’s romanticized “noble savage” ideal is every bit as problematic as his countrymen’s Western-centric view of civilization. Just because the jungle and its peoples are far removed from the smokestacks and factories of the Western world doesn’t mean they’re pure or innocent. And just because Fawcett wants to escape it all doesn’t mean he is, either.

Through all of this, Fawcett is missing the comparatively mundane but equally beautiful life of his own family. His wife Nina (Sienna Miller) is unfailing in her love and support, and largely raises their three children all on her own — a feat of endurance in itself. Oldest son Jack (Tom Holland) resents his father for being constantly absent, but longs to truly connect with him. He finally does, on Fawcett’s final expedition, the one from which neither ever returned.

As Christians in an unjust world, it’s easy for us to long for escape, for a “pure, uncorrupted” place that makes sense to us — that is, our ideas of heaven. But while it’s important to desire that perfection, we ourselves can’t actually attain it, as true comprehension of heaven lies beyond earthly grasp. If getting to heaven is the only thing we care about, we’re missing the point.

To illustrate this, Gray positions both the Fawcett family home and the Amazon jungle as two different forms of isolated idyll. Several breathtaking shots in the Amazon show Fawcett marveling at the innovations of the cultures he encounters, and how they work with, rather than against, the land. In England, the Fawcett family is often shown outdoors, enjoying the countryside around their secluded house. The two settings are both places of peaceful escape, and one gets the feeling that if Fawcett were to stick around a little longer, he might notice that himself.

It is a struggle to stay engaged in the modern world when it feels like humanity is determined to tear itself apart. But there’s still profound beauty amid that struggle that should be acknowledged and revered. The Lost City of Z reminds us that removing ourselves entirely from the business of everyday life, from valuable relationships and experiences, however small, is impossible — and keeps us from truly seeing the kingdom of God at work.

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic and writer based in Kansas. You can find her on Twitter @indieabby88.

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