Jean Gentil

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Jean Remy Gentil, left, in Jean Gentil

It’s become so fashionable to throw around the term Bressonian that the auteurist adjective has nearly lost its complimentary oomph; any movie with minimalist performances and a slight spiritual bent now automatically gets the label slapped on it. (For a taste of the real thing, we suggest detouring to BAM for the tail end of its in-progress retro on the late French filmmaker.) Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s portrait of a Haitian teacher fallen on hard times has certainly lifted several pages from Bresson’s playbook, notably in its lead’s near-monotonous line readings (a former educator in real life, Jean Remy Gentil essentially plays a fictionalized version of himself) and a less-is-more approach to storytelling.

More important, however, Jean Gentil shares a certain searching quality that marked the best of Bresson’s films—and for once, the inevitable analogy with his work seems appropriate. Having been unable to procure another teaching gig in the Dominican Republic, the religiously devout Gentil is forced to take construction jobs and whatever else comes his way; he eventually ends up living like an animal in the wild. Cárdenas and Guzmán’s cameras trail closely after Gentil as his desperation takes on a divine quality, letting the actor’s placid suffering carry the burden except for one brilliant exception (a long shot involving an unseen accuser that makes it seem as if the jungle, or God, is yelling at our hero). Though this approach makes the story’s social-commentary aspects more conspicuous by their absence, the duo is less concerned with making Gentil a symbolic everyman than with capturing his quest for finding salvation in misery. When that moment arrives, the movie finally drops its spare aesthetic—and not even the obviousness of the flourish can dampen the sense that you’ve just witnessed something genuinely transcendent.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear

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