Before night falls
By David Iaconangelo
Jean Gentil, directed by Laura Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas (84 minutes)
Jean Remy in the title role of Jean Gentil. Image courtesy the trinidad+tobago film festival
Jean Gentil has had, in some reviews, a divisive claim levelled at it: that there is no plot, that nothing really happens over its course, which as usual doesn’t seem particularly descriptive, since plenty of things do happen, after all.
Jean, a former language teacher in his native Haiti, has immigrated to the Dominican Republic in search of work, and in Santo Domingo he suffers a series of misfortunes which drive him out to the countryside. Through nearly the whole film, beginning with his eviction from his apartment in the city, we watch him wander, looking for work and food to sustain him and places to spend the night, praying aloud as he goes, bewailing what he lacks: a woman, a job, money, someone who needs him. He does, near the end, give a few lessons in rudimentary Creole, evidently without being paid, and yet this brush with his desired life ends up driving him further into depression. The film ends with a rolling shot of an earthquake-levelled Port-au-Prince, and though I imagine we should infer that Jean’s real penury originates in the disaster, I wouldn’t suspect him of ever having been a very vigorous or enterprising soul, as in his forty-some years he’s never been with a woman. So if we speak of a thinness of plot, we must be referring to two things: very little of what occurs in the film surprises us or ruptures the relative inertia of Jean’s existence, and, because we’re put into only very brief contact with anything at all resembling his desired life (those aforementioned Creole lessons), we ought to see this as a film whose focus is the absence of certain desires. At the centre of Jean Gentil is a hole.
But, aside from frustrating viewers who are impatient for meaning, this approach to narrative presents a difficulty I’m not sure the film manages to resolve. We understand narratives most typically in terms of their characters’ desires: what are they, what do they become, why, and how does their unfulfillment occasion the expression — and predisposition towards the expression — of other desires. Even if characters lie or try to hide, we trust the narrator will clue us in. Yet the assumption that the narrator’s ultimate intent is an ingenuous one supposes that the narrator’s perspective differs from that of the protagonist, even if it’s sympathetic. If a film — whether documentary or fictive — isn’t constantly interpreting its subject, if it relinquishes too much of that power to the subject himself, doesn’t the authority of its perspective erode? Isn’t the “third person” perspective part of the elementary syntax of filmmaking because it is intrinsic and necessary to the project of constructing truth from images?
Mixed up in all this remains the question of how we should regard the form of Jean Gentil. A look at the credits reveals that the protagonist Jean Remy is played by a man named Jean Remy, which suggests the filmmakers’ raw material came from episodes of the real Remy’s life as he recounted them, then liberties were taken in their recreation and in the plot itself. So while it can’t be considered a documentary (the whole of the film being composed of staged scenes), I suspect that great care was taken in remaining faithful not only to the details of events, but to the way in which Remy would have experienced them. This commitment to recreating the textures of the protagonist’s experience is where the film’s most salient virtues are to be found, though it is also the source of its failures.
In one scene — taking place after Jean has returned to the countryside, and just after we’ve heard him ask God where he might find a place to be content — we watch him sleep alone in a jungle clearing, the palm trees behind him reaching up into a sky that could be either dusk or twilight. The camera begins level with Jean and slowly rises, panning up simultaneously, so that one senses we are scanning about for a response. Another example: until the last few minutes, there isn’t a single note of music that doesn’t occur as part of the filmed action. Instead, we hear the dull drone of the sea, the maddening buzzing of motor bikes and the honking and roaring of cars and trucks, and, when Jean leaves for the countryside, the tranquil but unvarying sounds of the natural world. These sounds have in common a monotony that simulates Jean’s mood — to be hungry and beat is to lapse into a dull resentful inertia that resists attempts to be roused — and only in the wispy, slightly saccharine notes which close the film do the filmmakers add an effect which does not model itself on the qualities of Jean’s experience. The directors seem bent on making the realism of Jean Gentil refer to reality as Jean would have experienced it.
Perhaps I am wrong in seeing a diminished authority in such faithfulness to a subject’s perspective, and there is something noble in the egalitarianism that drives this faithfulness — particularly considering the notorious extent to which the voices of Haitian immigrants to the Dominican Republic go ignored, even in the face of brutalisation. But is this enough to make a good film? If what counts isn’t the number of perspectives so much as the pluralities contained within each one, that single perspective better be enough to sustain us, especially in a film with as thin a plot as this. Jean’s meekness is unintelligent, and he is maddeningly inflexible about his desires. In short, he’s depressed, and because the film is so faithful to how he experiences things, it shares his depression.
To sympathise doesn’t mean you’ve got to abnegate your right to differ in your account of things. Which is not to say that the film ever descends into anything truly maudlin, but neither does it take positions, to its discredit. We know what it is like to be Jean after watching this film, and we understand the terrible downward pull of his misfortunes. Yet, like the people who encounter him in the film, we do not know what to do with the weight of his depression, and I fear that the typical response may to forget him, and the film in which we’ve found him.
This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2011
David Iaconangelo is a writer, translator, and former editor of ZafraLit. His essays and fiction have been published in The Latin American Review of Books and The Sylvan Echo, among other publications.