Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on its streaming platform on Wednesday, June 9.
Desire doesn’t ask for an explanation, and “Tragic Jungle” (or “Selva Trágica”) doesn’t offer any. On the contrary, Mexican filmmaker Yulene Olaizola’s fifth and most assured feature seduces you away from the legibility of its premise so gradually that you don’t realize you’ve lost your bearings until it’s already too late and the whole movie has gone mad with at least one kind of lust. Still, it helps to know in advance that this febrile corkscrew into the heart of darkness is loosely based on the Yucatán Mayan myth of Xtabay, a female demon said to lure men to their deaths if they entered her forest; her name is invoked on occasion via the movie’s disembodied voiceover, but proper context is as elusive as a path out of the jungle.
According to a sacred text the Mayans referred to as “Wikipedia,” the legend of Xtabay tells of two beautiful women — often said to be sisters — who lived on the Peninsula; one was “pure” and loved by the villagers for her celibacy, while the other was promiscuous and despised for supposedly loose morals. In truth, the former was haughty and hierarchical while the latter was kind and giving, but Olaizola’s elliptical take on the legend skips over the slut-shaming and cuts straight to the part where both of them are dead.
From their shared memory emerges a demon in a white dress who leads men into the woods, disorients her victims, has sex with them, and then murders them in one way or another (i.e. Xtabay throws them off a cliff, eats their hearts, transforms into a serpent and devours the men whole, etc.). However you slice it, there are worse ways to die in the jungle; legions of other movies have made that clear.
Baking the delirium of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” into the animalistic eros of “Tropical Malady” in the service of a mysterious film that’s much hornier than Werner Herzog or Apichatpong Weerasethakul would ever allow themselves to get on screen, Olaizola’s telling updates the centuries-old myth to the 1920s and roots it in the verdant maze of a Mayan rainforest along the Rio Hondo — at that time a border separating Mexico from British Honduras. A beautiful young virgin named Agnes (played by Belizean actress Indira Andrewin with a blank pout that men use as a screen on which to project their wants) makes her way upriver with her nurse sister Florence (Shantai Obispo) and a field worker of some kind (Nedal McLaren). The relationship between Agnes and her companions is ambiguous; the relationship between Florence and Norm is as explicit as two people fucking against a tree.
Dialogue is hard to come by in “Tragic Jungle,” and so the few words that Florence and Agnes exchange carry a supernatural weight. “You could have married that English guy,” Florence says to her sister about the colonialist landowner they appear to be fleeing. “You’re kind of white enough for his family, so you could have become a rich woman. If it was me, I would have let him feel in control a few times, and then I would have taken control of him. That’s how men are.” Agnes’ curt reply is delivered in the same affectless English as the rest of the scene: “I’m not like you.”
The fugitives are shot a few moments later, Agnes seemingly included. But when she’s rescued by a crew of pent-up chicleros — men who climb rubber trees and hack away at the pink flesh under their bark in order to tap the milk inside — her body appears untouched. Could the jungle be playing tricks on us already? The men are instructed to leave Agnes alone under penalty of death, but it’s only a matter of time before the humid virility of the rainforest stokes their lizard-brain lust. Like Xtabay, Agnes can be found waiting at the base of a ceiba tree during the dead of night. Like Xtabay’s victims, the chicleros who come to her tend to be gone soon after. “Don’t let her sweet nectar intoxicate you,” warns the film’s hushed narration. “The jungle gives you plenty, but also takes a lot away.”
From there, that push-and-pull is as close to a distinguishable conflict as Olaizola carves from her premise. The chicleros appear to be searching for a way to the Mexican side of the border in the hopes they might be able to escape English control and sell their rubber to a more rewarding clientele, but they spend most of the movie going in circles like an ouroboros that’s so happy to have a new taste on its lips that it doesn’t realize it’s eating itself. Alejandro Oteola’s anachronistic and cooly sinister score (reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s theme for “The Thing”) chases the men deeper into the jungle as if it’s hunting them and toying with its prey. The steely gaze of Sofía Oggioni’s camera never aligns with their growing panic; on the contrary, it’s as unflinching as Agnes’ expression when a man’s blood is Jackson Pollock-ed across her face.
They walk, they screw, they die. They walk, they screw, they die. The terrain never changes. Olaizola could have shot this entire movie by redressing the same green thicket of trees for each scene and no one would have noticed the difference. Unlike Aguirre, the chicleros aren’t unraveling — at least not toward any kind of crescendo — and the film around them isn’t pushing forward so much as sublimating into the ecosystem of the jungle. (Herzog would at least have to appreciate the spotlight Olaizola reserves for ants, crocodiles, and millipede-like insects I wouldn’t want to recognize well enough to identify.)
The whispery voiceover only intensifies that feeling of narrative dissipation, as it’s read in a tone that implies the story’s mythic origins — a cadence that suggests all of this has already happened, and there’s no use hoping these chicleros will survive their decision to ravage the forest and anyone they happen to find in it. With little in the way of clear meaning, it’s tempting to think of Agnes’ fate as an allegory for nature itself. It’s tempting to see the jungle as a woman harassed by mankind — a woman who wanted to share herself with a loving partner, only to be exploited by the greed and gluttony of primitive beasts.
The truth is that Olaizola’s film, while so lush and mesmeric that you start to feel the jungle sweating through your skin, is also amorphous in a way that makes it as easy to get lost in as the Rio Hondo itself. “Xtabay is the woman you have found in all women,” the narrator tells us, “and the woman you have not found in any of them.” Enthralling as it can be to look for her, the mysteries of “Tragic Jungle” aren’t quite dense enough to compensate for the joy of discovery.
“Tragic Jungle” premiered in the Orizzonti section at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival.