A Film a Week - The Forest of Lost Souls / A Floresta das Almas Perdidas

What if the suicide were just the beginning of the problems? The young and aspiring Portuguese genre auteur José Pedro Lopes poses the same question with his lean and artsy feature-length debut The Forest of Lost Souls. Judging by the result, he is someone we can count on in the future of genre filmmaking.

After the title card quoting Neitzche, the action is about to start with a middle-aged man named Ricardo (Jorge Mota), who is parking his car at the edge of the wooded area, supposedly popular with the people planning to take their own lives. He follows the signs that lead him to the part of the forest designated for suicides, all completely fictional but all too familiar with the Aokigahara woods at the foothill of Mt. Fuji in Japan portrayed in Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees.

As soon as he finds his spot, Ricardo realizes that he has company consisting of a “manic pixie goth girl” in her late teens or early 20s named Carolina (Daniela Love), who first mocks his chosen method (a knife), and then his general unpreparedness for the act, like forgetting to bring his own pen and paper for suicide note, which she readily lends him. The sarcastic banter between the two of them continues and it seems like that they are determined to save each other’s life, but still firm about the decision to take their own.

At least it is the case with Ricardo who cannot handle his life any more. One of his daughters, Irene (Lila Lopes, seen only in flashbacks) committed suicide herself a year ago and he feels threatened by the constant nagging of his wife (Lígia Roque) and the cynical attitude of his other daughter Filipa (Mafalada Banquart) to whom Carolina reminds him of, regarding both her age and the treatment she gives him. Also, it turns out to be that Carolina lacks the courage to take the final step and that she is more of a morbidly curious tourist in the forest, and more of the theoretitian than a suicide practitioner.

Or is she? After a sharp turn somewhere around midpoint, the film takes the course away from the casually dark comedic tone Lopes established early on, which is transforming more to the direction of something really sinister in the vein of home invasion thrillers, stalking chillers and slasher horrors. Smartly enough, he holds the cards regarding the motivational explanation up until the end, amplifying the cynicism he plays with right from the start.

He also avoids bloodbath and cheap shocks, though the stalking parts are a bit too much tongue in cheek, staying true to his darkly poetic realism realized through Francisco Lobo’s stark black and white cinematography, Ana Almeida’s meditative editing and Emanuel Grácio’s sometimes prevalent music score, transforming the budgetary limitations into an artistic statement. He gets a lot of help from his actors, especially Love who plays her clichéd part with a bit of dark hipster irony of her own. The brisk runtime of 71 minutes is also more than helpful to make The Forest of Lost Souls an easy watch as well as a stylish and assured, albeit at moments nonsensical debut.

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