There's something primal about the moving-image travelogue. One of the original genres of moviemaking, it made a comeback in the home-video footage now considered a hallmark of documentaries' montage sequences. "I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You" personalizes the charm of observational B-roll through experimental narrative. A delicate Brazilian assemblage that follows a lonely geologist as he wanders through the barren terrain of northeastern Brazil, it takes the shape of an intimate diary reminiscent of work by Chris Marker or Jonas Mekas.
The men behind the camera, Marcelo Gomes and Karim Aïnouz, take us from dusty highways to bustling villages in pile-up of sights and sounds that illustrate the isolation of their unseen and pensive protagonist, José Renato. In the process, the directors create such an impressive atmosphere that it's easy to forget the entire movie constitutes a work of fiction.
The pensive 35-year-old is pining for the affections of his botanist ex-wife, "Blondie." Complaining of the "dead-end labyrinth" that traps his psyche, José starts to see his sadness as a part of a greater cycle visible in the nature and nameless faces surrounding him. He spends an extended period focusing on the women he encounters for solace along the way, then returns to the indifferent geography as if to show that no dalliance can cure his deeper sense of insignificance.
The visual collage retains a consistent melancholy, resulting in an experience that's both deeply affecting and -- since José never actually appears on-camera -- utterly detached. The movie could be viewed sans sound and still convey the same underlying mood. "The repetition," Renato says of the places he goes, "just underscores the monotony of the landscape." He's exactly right, but his plight shows how even monotony has its magnificence.
A plot summary can't fully relate the hypnotic effect of watching the world through Renato's eyes, but the sheer beauty of the things counteracts his neurotic outlook. "I Travel" concludes as a paean to the eternal comfort that nature provides. At one point Renato whines, "The truth is, it's me I can't stand," but thanks to the fantastic images that surround his evocative ruminations, they never overstay their welcome.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although well reviewed on the festival circuit, "I Travel" is too experimental for widespread appeal. However, it should be embraced by viewers with a soft spot for avant-garde film.
criticWIRE grade: A-
"I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Miss You" opens today at Anthology Film Archives.