Directed by Jazmín López
An assured debut feature from Argentinian director Jazmin Lopez, Leones free-floats between complementary realms of the natural and supernatural. The entire movement, comprised of very few long, tracking shots within 80 minutes, chugs through the barely navigable forest of an unknown location, as six teenagers make their way toward a destination only they know, or perhaps don’t know at all. Of equal uncertainty is who they are or where they’ve come from, the only visible clue a crumpled BMW that may have crashed at the journey’s beginning. One can’t be sure, and neither can the kids themselves. Onward they march, playing word games to keep themselves occupied, expressing nothing of much importance.
Who are these people? The camera traipses around the greenery alongside them, tracing one individual, then another, becoming occasionally side-tracked by the allure of the natural forest. As these characters wander in and out of the frame, triggering transient attention from the camera in the instance that its unimpeded long take attaches to their moving bodies, it becomes clear that the camera is just as much a wandering, sentient presence as they, traversing and reacting to its environment in almost the same manner, the tracking shots a literal reflection of the unimpeded forest surveying. Movement for movement’s sake, without a beginning or an end.
The perpetual progression goes on hold upon the eventual appearance of the smashed BMW, in which one of the girls, Isabel, rests inside and immediately breaks into unexplainable tears. The camera glides around the alternately smooth and jagged edges of the vehicle, its surfaces having been moulded from one definition to the other in the blink of an eye. Then, in the film’s finest track of all, the camera turns from the vehicle and sinks away into the depths of the forest, just in time for a rainstorm to assail and supply yet more texture to the landscape. Other rigid, non-amorphous constructs are presented, such as a house that the teens stumble across, and may possibly have been searching for. It sits in the middle of an ever-changing nature, fixed and resolute.
Lopez has called upon the reliable photography talents of Matias Mesa, whose steadicam skills were notably employed in Gerry and Elephant, both possessing traits this film closely shares. It is another Gus Van Sant film, however, that Leones recalls most clearly: in Last Days, Van Sant takes heed of action unrestricted from the borders of the frame, allowing his subject to pass through and continue action offscreen, thus keeping the viewer mindful of the camera’s modest placement within a larger milieu. In Leones, the attention the camera calls to itself through its immersion in the journey gives us a refined realisation of the people it follows, or just as importantly, is not following.
Is the camera a sort of ghost, mingling with these bodies, mirroring their every move, almost caressing their sleeping bodies before being drawn to the next visual or aural stimuli, almost all acquaintances unaware of its presence? Perhaps these teenagers are the spirits themselves, forever in flux, caught in a perpetual journey through the forest from nowhere to nowhere else. One particular ‘imaginary’ volleyball sequence – a clear reference to Antonioni’s Blow-Up – can’t be simply a coincidence.
In spite of its breezy, liberating tracks, Leones is one of the most demanding films of the festival so far because of the attractive mystery it bestows, not wholly confined to an opaque narrative, but referentially bonded with a method of filmmaking that holds considerable implications. One of the girls, almost in a trance, moves determinedly toward the ocean, the camera pacing close behind as if willing her on. More than the car and the forest combined, here is a fully amorphous prospect in the restless waves. Hers, theirs, the camera’s impetus: to keep moving, moving onward.