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Gaia [Video Review]

Fungus Among Us: Bouwer Delivers Eco-Horror Slow Burn

Jaco Bouwer Gaia ReviewEcological horror films have taken on a somewhat lusty, unprecedented gravity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality of which hampered the production of Gaia from South Africa’s Jaco Bouwer. As its title indicates, a theological/mythological component also defines this quietly administered tale of Mother Earth in rebellion, encroaching back upon humankind’s plundering of her resources through a creative use of something already found in nature, a fungus which takes ownership of its hosts and turns them into, well, creatures.

While the narrative hits a monotonous stretch begging for several beats or moments to be condensed, Bouwer and scribe Tertius Kapp offer a compelling quartet of characters forced to contend with their contemporary heart of darkness.

Gabi (Monique Rockman) and her boss Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are forest rangers on a routine mission when their expensive drone is knocked out by what appears to be a man living in the foliage. In retrieving their equipment, the two are separated. Seeing something menacing in the brush, Gabi panics and her foot is impaled in a trap. Rescued by two off-the-grid survivalists, Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), the injured Gabi quickly learns the offbeat duo seem devoted to something strange in the forest, something which is saving them from errant elements transforming other humans who stray into this increasingly hostile environment.

An intriguing struggle for power develops between Gabi and Barend as they contend for the allegiance of Stefan, the former in what seems partially motivated by desire and the latter for something a bit more biblically oriented, as it turns out. Thrown almost immediately into peril, the lack of developing a dynamic between Barend and Stefan sort of muddles a second act, where repeated excursions and harried returns to their idyll eventually feel repetitive. As Gabi, Monique Rockman is a commanding screen presence attempting to navigate the reality of a madman, with Carel Nel looking like a bedraggled version of Charles Manson. Dipping into body horror and zombie lore, one wishes Bouwer had the budgetary ability to explore this primordial environment, but is justifiably successful with presenting a prescient scenario.

Lushly shot by Jorrie van der Walt, including an opening upside-down landscape disorientation mirroring Midsommar (2019), it’s slow burn verdant peril which creates a vibe more malicious than menacing. If at first suggesting Bacurau (2019), Bouwer creates a more cohesive version of something attempted earlier this year by Ben Wheatley with In the Earth, where it appears the god we’ve neglected, Mother Earth, has come to reclaim herself.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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