The jungle is a place of intoxicating mystery, and people have been telling nightmare-ridden stories about what dangers might lurk within them for a long time. Tragic Jungle (Selva Trágica), the latest from Mexican filmmaker Yulene Olaizola, is set in one, but nothing is ever quite what it seems. Utilizing a mix of English, Creole, Maya, and Spanish language, the film uses a postcolonial and critical lens in approaching history and Mayan legend, revealing that the most dangerous species inhabiting the jungle is perhaps man.
In the 1920s, on the Mexico and British Honduras (modern-day Belize) border, a woman journeys through the jungle searching for freedom. Agnes (Indira Andrewin) is fleeing from a marriage she does not want to be in, journeying up the river with her sister Florence (Shantai Obispo) and their guide Norm (Cornelius McLaren). Meanwhile, her British suitor is violently on her tail, armed with guard dogs and guns hoping to take her back.
Despite the intensity of the pursuit, the visual and sonic approach starts out quiet and subdued, venturing into the haunting creaks and groans of the jungle. As Agnes wades through the water in her prim white dress, her surroundings feel like decay and degradation — dark, gloomy, brooding, and ready to swallow her whole. Cinematographer Sofia Oggioni immerses the viewer into a visceral encounter with nature, plunging Agnes into the shadows of the forest and dark nights of the soul. In certain scenes, Olaizola and Oggioni take a restrained, almost documentary-like approach, but in others, the realism gives way to a mystical spell.
The otherworldliness is added to when the film’s narrator tells us about the Yucatec Mayan myth of Xtabay, a female demon who drives men to ruin. Workers in the jungle come to slowly view Agnes as this mythological icon, and poke and prod at Agnes, assessing her “Englishness” as she looks on with wide eyes, unable to halt their invasions. The rainforest feels almost like a human body itself as it pulsates with energy and is used and abused by people, causing the trees to ooze and bare their scars.
As the mythology around her grows, Agnes becomes more of a fantastical projection or a figment of the imagination than a fully fleshed-out person. We get less and less insight into her psychology as the narrative progresses, and she barely speaks or interacts with the workers. But Olaizola reminds us to never take things at face value and prompts us to look at each image through her female gaze — interrogating the mythologizing and fetishization of women even as Agnes becomes a hollowed out shell.
There is not much in the way of conflict, beyond the always-creeping sensation that evil lurks within the jungle: “Don’t let her sweet nectar intoxicate you,” warns the narrator. “The jungle gives you plenty, but also takes a lot away.” Like the misguided characters, we get lost in the labyrinthine jungle, baking in its thick air, and start to be driven mad by the unchanging scenery.
Tragic Jungle weaves a simple yet striking tale of human impact on the environment and the marks we make as we fashion things in our own image. The morality, dreams, and delirium of the jungle give rise to a demonic figure, but perhaps those demons were with us long before we ever stepped foot amongst the canopy of its trees.