The great global success of 2015's Embrace of the Serpent has opened up a pathway leading off the beaten track and into the jungle, reconnecting the cinema with underexplored territories, underfilmed people, undiscovered stories. As our movie centreground narrows to safe, franchisable bets, there is certainly scope for fringe filmmakers to become more adventurous: with this week's MUBI premiere The Dead and the Others, directors Renée Nader Messora and Joao Salaviza enlist several representatives of northeastern Brazil's Krahô people to play variants of themselves in a fictionalised retelling of actual events. Initially, Messora and Salaviza seem to be scrabbling around on unfamiliar turf, trying to find their bearings; you wonder if the damn film is ever going to start. It's not that nothing's going on: we meet Henrique (Henrique Ihjãc Krahô) and Raene (Raene Kôtô Krahô), a young couple with a small problem in a child who can't sleep and a bigger one in the form of Henrique's late father, who has taken to stalking his son in spirit form, refusing to set out for the land of the dead until his offspring has laid on a funerary feast. It's just that there's so much stillness around these characters that any urgency tends to slip away unnoticed into the surrounding woodland. The cicadas come to seem like the busiest creatures on screen, their back legs providing the movie's characteristically hushed soundtrack. But relax: this line of approach proves to be tactical. Each new scene serves to pull the agitated viewer a little further away from the perma-stimulation of social media and 24-hour news, and a little deeper into the forest, the rhythms of Krahô life, the spaces these people inhabit and the challenges they face. Twenty minutes in, I was restless; an hour later, I'd slapped on the warpaint, stripped down to my underwear and gone at least half-native. Heaven knows what the neighbours made of the sight.
The lack of overt signposting that Messora and Salaviza provide along the way obliges the viewer to learn to read the same signs Henrique reads - markers you simply wouldn't find in the pages of any conventional screenwriting handbook. What, for example, to make of the terrifying-looking macaw that tails our hero's progress? Is it spirit or augury? Just when you think you're beginning to get the lay of the land, the film pulls a further switcheroo by packing Henrique off to the city - and The Dead and the Others suddenly, organically becomes a study of what it is to be a migratory being like that bird (or ghost-dad), to have to build a nest and life many miles away from one's home. Set against the colour and texture of the jungle scenes, the city strikes the eye as cold, banal and alienating; it's some measure of the film's achievement that it sets even those of us who wouldn't dream of leaving our hot running water and broadband behind to peer through the looking glass so, to yearn for the unplugged delights of the back of beyond. Much of that is down to Ihjãc Krahô's expressive central performance, which holds the camera's gaze and viewer sympathies alike for two hours. The film that develops around him is a truly independent expedition, one with no agenda save to look, listen and learn, and then report some of its makers' findings back to us. Renouncing those generic adventure-movie trappings Embrace of the Serpent provided to act as rope bridges between its wilderness and our so-called civilisation, it makes for an odd but rewarding experience, beholden to nobody, subject to its own laws of dramatic gravity, with elements that plainly exist beyond any attempt at translation. Yet the sense of discovery it leaves you with is uncommonly strong: long spells here were so vivid and absorbing that I wondered whether it might be an idea to keep malaria tablets and mosquito spray close to the laptop.
The Dead and the Others is now streaming via MUBI UK.