Under the rhythmic hacking of machetes, the zig-zag gashes in the trees look like wounds, exposing the bark’s red flesh and the raw, bone-white wood within. The men clinging to the trunks with rope slings and crude crampons are chicleros, collecting the bright white sap that oozes from the trees to boil into chicle, a rubbery substance that, back in 1920 when Yulene Olaizola’s bewitching “Tragic Jungle” is set, was used to make chewing gum. Gum is no longer manufactured that way, and British Honduras, where the stealthy, mysterious story takes place, became Belize in 1971, but as far in the past as those events may be, the strange, slow currents of this darkly lyrical drama seem older still — as ancient as the jungle itself, which acts, more than any of the human characters, as the film’s impervious, omniscient protagonist.
Agnes (Indira Rubie Andrewin), a beautiful young English-speaking Belizean woman, has taken to the jungle to escape an undesired marriage to a ruthless British landowner (Dale Carley). But after her companions are killed, she is found unconscious by Jacinto (Mariano Tun Xool), one of a gang of Mexican chicleros working this patch of borderland rainforest. Their leader, Ausencio (Gilberto Barraza) first orders Agnes protected and unmolested, assuming from her clothing that she’s a nurse who can tend to a feverish worker. But soon Ausencio’s gaze becomes just as lustful as that of the other men, while Agnes’ own transformation from vulnerable virgin to self-motivated seductress complicates the film’s slender narrative in unexpected, supernaturally-tinged ways. She becomes partly their prisoner, partly their prize and partly the slyly complicit, possibly mythical personification of the Mayan legend of Xtabay, a siren-like demon who lures men to their doom.
The mutual incomprehension between Spanish, English and Creole (spoken by the Englishman’s Indigenous henchmen) means that “Tragic Jungle” has little internal dialogue. But it is far from silent, and not just because the screams of howler monkeys and the chirruping of insects make the very air seem almost suffocatingly alive. Nor even because of Alejandro Otaola’s fascinating, discordant score, which begins sparsely, as though played on some makeshift hand-strung instrument before maturing into a brooding, anachronistically electro hum.
There is also the broken poetry of the voiceover — Jacinto’s, it is implied — which skims, in enigmatic non-sequiturs, the relationships between man and woman and between man and nature, out here in a tropical ecosystem that has little use for humankind at all. When, in one of the most striking of DP Sofía Oggione’s beautiful, dense compositions, one of the chicleros tumbles from his treetop perch to his presumed death without so much as murmur, it’s as if the jungle is receiving him like a sacrifice made to an indifferent god. And when Agnes morphs into a kind of embodiment of the spirit of the rainforest, each new probably fatal tryst happens in the river or against the moonlit bark of a tree, as if these men too were offerings to the woods and waters of this unknowably vast and secretive habitat.
The mystification of female sexuality, and the idea that a woman enjoying the power of her allure (Agnes’ secret smile as she notices another lascivious glance directed her way) is necessarily demonic or destructive is, like so much folklore, distinctly patriarchal. But Olaizola’s perspective is anything but, with the camera as transfixed by the men (many of them non-professionals), lit craggy and scarred in the firelight, as by the luminosity of Agnes’ face or the smoothness of her skin. It becomes a powerful combination of the dreamily mythic with the quasi-documentary mundane. The low-lit photography is artful, but sometimes quite procedural, observing the collecting of the chicle and the molding of the resin into soft bricks of gum, or the way ants swarm over a rotting body, how fat crocodiles slither into murky rivers or how a packhorse can be coaxed onto a raft. In cinematic terms, jungle explorers in colonial times are usually on a quest for gold and glory; here, it is all gum and hard graft.
This is a quietly captivating tale that feels cautionary and yet does not have an easily parsable moral, perhaps because the justice it serves is mapped to a timescale much longer than humanity’s. Bad people escape; good people die; the film, like the forest itself, seems uninterested in those most human of distinctions. Here there are only those who understand that “the jungle gives you plenty, but also takes a lot away” and those who try to take more from her than she is willing to give. It is this sense of an uncanny, arcane wisdom, borne of thousands of years of nature’s vast cycles of growth and decay that makes Olaizola’s oblique vision so peculiarly compelling: The tragedy that meets those who do not respect this wild and ancient environment comes about not because the jungle is cruel, but because it is patient.