Jean Gentil Dir. Laura Emilia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas

[Aurora Dominicana; 2011]

Styles: character study, docu-realism
Others: The Fire Within, Sand Dollars

Jean Remy Genty (played by the actor of the same name) walks apart from his fellow man. He is a Haitian living in the Dominican Republic, pious and stoic, yet suicidal in his despair. He is an accountant and language teacher forced to skirt the margins of Santo Domingo looking for work, sleeping in construction sites after he is evicted from his home. Eventually, he reaches the end of his rope and escapes to the country’s lush interior.

We spend a lot of alone time with Jean and start to get a feel for what’s eating him beyond his desperate financial situation. He fears that he has failed to comprehend God’s plan for him, which he feels has included little but suffering, and so he asks God to “perform an operation” to cure him of his spiritual sickness — a sickness that he feels only God can acknowledge, let alone treat. Jean walks as if stricken, and when he speaks to people he meets along his way, it’s as if he can barely make out their humanity through the thick haze of his inner perplexity. It’s no surprise when he admits that he has never had a romantic relationship of any kind.

It’s a sad state of affairs, especially since many of the people he meets treat him kindly. People, especially those younger than Jean, are fascinated by him: they seem to want to simply be around him, as if they hope to glean some kind of lesson or inspiration from his troubled life. It’s hard to tell if they see him as a saint, a curio, or a memento mori, but regardless, he can’t provide them with any answers. God has imbued these incomprehensible beings with at least the ability to feel levity and joy, something Jean feels he has been denied. He is frightened and downtrodden not because he has lost faith, but because his faith has become a burden to him.

Directors Laura Emilia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas film Jean’s downward spiral in an intimate documentary style, with an eye toward elegantly composed shots that are often achingly beautiful. The subject matter is dour, though, and the film’s deliberate pacing can become glacial. Yet it helps to bear in mind that Jean is a shamble or two away from complete nullification: some moments can seem drawn out, but taken together, they give the impression of time trickling away its precious and interminable seconds.

At times, the film feels just a little po-faced and self-aware about being a very serious movie about very serious things. But it feels silly to want a film about the historically agony-plagued island of Hispaniola to balance the dark with the light. Jean tells God at one point that he wants to fly to the sky, so he can find a place for himself. He evidently gets his wish, but it’s not what he expected. As we find out during the film’s devastating final shots (the subject of which I won’t give away here, so as not to ruin one of the film’s most breathtaking moments), the view from up there isn’t too much better.

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