My first viewing of Jazmín López’s debut Leones left me feeling like I may have missed something vital. I saw it two years ago, and remember being so taken with the film’s beauty that the oblique plot seemed of secondary importance. Indeed, watching it again was a reminder of just how impressive Lopez’s utilization of natural light, ambient sound, and cinematographer Matias Mesa and Steadicam operator Pablo Villarreal’s work truly is. But that’s not to discredit the film’s metaphysical mystery narrative, which also came through with much more clarity upon a second viewing and proves rewarding if one devotes the necessary patience to piece it together.

Leones opens on its primary character, Isabel (Isa, played by Julia Volpato), walking through the film’s forest setting, her pace sporadically quickening. She is searching for her four friends and the camera leers close behind, mimicking her steps and movements, until she finally runs off and it comes to a sudden halt, taking in the overwhelming sounds of the lush forest. The scene is the first of many bravura tracking shots to accentuate the majesty and natural beauty of the environment, bustling with life, while the film’s five characters are unknowingly confronting death. This is mainly suggested through the character of Isa, who, we notice right away, has a bruise on the back of her neck and no recollection of its origin. Her friends, Arturo (Pablo Sigal), Sofia (Macarena del Corro), Niki (Diego Vegezzi) and Felix (Tomas Mackinlay) seem to have little concern for Isa’s confusion and neuroses, playing games centered around Hemingway, having spontaneous intellectual conversations on life and death, sorting through sexual desires and occasionally checking the map. The dialogue is ponderous, affected, circular. Time is indeterminate.

I like what Nicholas Carter says in his Sounds and Colors review about the film’s five affluent hipsters being “inescapably hyper-transient”—everything is fleeting: feelings, actions, relationships. This is especially true of Arturo, Sofia’s insufferable brother, whose every impulsive and reckless action comes with no clear motivation. Isa, the object of his desire, seems to have a lone semblance of self-awareness and humanity (unlike the others, she complains of being tired, hungry, aching), though she is continually dismissed by her friends as a whiny annoyance. Isa is the most sympathetic of the leads, but López seems a bit unsure of herself in handling her—or any of the characters’—emotional development. It is the visual and aural aspects of her film that truly stick. Much has already been made of the camerawork, always in a state of flux, which is exceedingly impressive as Leones goes on. But what was most striking this time, for me, was the way López uses and manipulates sound—the way a bird’s deafening squawking is silenced by rounds from a revolver, or the wind sounding like a spectral chorus as the group stumbles upon a house in the woods. Though I appreciate more and more the director’s gradual revealing of clues and eventual payoff, these smaller flourishes continue to leave the dominant impression.

As part of our collaborative screening series with MDFF, Leones is playing in Toronto at Camera at 8:00pm on Saturday, March 28th.