Cannes 2024 review: Savanna and the Mountain (Paulo Carneiro)

Savanna and the Mountain is a tremendously intriguing version of the David and Goliath narrative archetype.”

Nestled in the north of Portugal in the idyllic region of Boticos sits the quaint village of Covas do Barroso, which is home to only a few hundred people. At a cursory glance, it seems to be like any other Mediterranean village, but it has a storied history that can be traced back to the medieval era, and continues to the present day. This is the location of a perpetual battle between the villagers and Savanna Resources, a British mining company that has been fervently trying to deplete the region of its resources (particularly lithium, as part of an ongoing project that is one of the largest of its kind in Europe), which the residents fear will entirely destroy their village should it be allowed to continue. This is the foundation of Savanna and the Mountain, the fourth film by Paulo Carneiro, a director who has dedicated a significant portion of his career to telling stories of his native country, seeking out ways to capture the beauty of both its gorgeous, mostly untouched landscapes and the people who live in villages scattered across these stunning regions. A fascinating and unusual film that combines documentary and fiction in creative ways, Savanna and the Mountain is a brilliantly realized feature that offers us insights into a continuous battle of the wits between a company that sets out to achieve a certain goal, and the steadfast individuals who decide to take matters into their own hands, regardless of the consequences.

On both a conceptual and formal level, Savanna and the Mountain is quite an intriguing film. Carneiro takes advantage of a growing movement towards films that do not need to make an immediate decision around genre classification to craft a fascinating blend of fact and fiction, which takes the form of a semi-fictionalized account of the trials and tribulations of this small village tucked away in an untouched corner of the country. Nearly all of the actors in this film are locals from Covas do Barroso, which not only lends the film a significant amount of credibility but also ensures that the anger and combativeness are authentic, coming from a place of genuine disdain for the corporation and its efforts to take away the beauty of the region through its industrial imperialism and reckless misuse of resources. The use of non-professional actors and a bare-boned, unfurnished style of filmmaking give Savanna and the Mountain the appearance of a dour, harsh, social-realist drama, albeit one that does take many artistic liberties, especially in terms of the tone, which can only be described as subversive and vaguely comedic, in the most unconventional sense of the term. Composed mostly from recreations of the events that took place in the conflict between the two feuding groups, the film offers fascinating insights into the day-to-day experiences of the locals as they attempt to outsmart a company that sees their efforts as almost laughable. While the conclusion takes the form of an intentionally heightened, satirical resolution, there are still hard truths embedded deep within this film, which is far more bleak than we initially imagine based on the off-kilter, slightly absurd tone at the outset.

Beneath the idiosyncrasies peppered throughout the film, we find that Savanna and the Mountain contains some common points of discussion, primarily in the eternal debate around the conflict between tradition and modernity. The reason the villagers of Covas do Barroso are so adamant in preventing Savanna Resources from occupying their land is not only a refusal to see their idyllic village become yet another stage for the continued pantomime that is capitalism, but also out of fear regarding what will happen should they surrender. This is not merely a case of the static, unchanging beauty of the natural world coming into conflict with the dynamism of modernity, but a desperate plea to allow these landscapes to remain untouched as much as possible, since it is almost sacred ground for these people, many of whom can trace their families back to the same village for centuries. The film brings up several questions, amongst the most notable asking about how long we can possibly evade progress before the unassailable might of industrialization completely takes over.  It’s an impossible question to answer and one that not even the residents of the region are able to completely comprehend. The film provides a delicate but meaningful glimpse into their daily lives, particularly in the sense of showing a community in flux – not only in terms of seeing their homeland change around them but also the psychological impact of witnessing these irreversible changes, providing a bleak but essential perspective into this conversation.

As the well-worn adage states, it takes a village to raise a child, and this film proves that these efforts can also be redirected to other endeavors, such as attempting to dismantle a ferocious industrial giant in favor of preserving the history of a particular place. There’s a very worrying trend that we see gradually taking over the natural world, a kind of capitalism-fueled colonizing of these small villages and untouched corners of the world, which are viewed as fertile ground for their greedy ambitions. Savanna and the Mountain could have been yet another overly didactic, academic documentary that presents the facts without any artistic nuance, but instead Carneiro chooses a more unconventional approach, presenting a slightly fictionalized account of the battle between these two groups, which eventually flourishes into this tragicomic portrait of pastoral Portugal. It is equally a passionate call to arms for those who have a desire to see the natural world preserved as far as possible and a poignant celebration of community since it is only through coming together and working as a collective that the residents of Covas do Barroso find themselves able to make any notable statements. Daring and oddly poetic in how it presents the apoplectic rage and undying commitment of these people who are deeply invested in preserving their home and the history of their village, Savanna and the Mountain is a tremendously intriguing version of the David and Goliath narrative archetype. Delivered in a straightforward but compelling manner, it reveals many hard truths about the modern world and the myopic refusal to set aside greed for the sake of protecting the past, much of which now exists only in the memories of the landscapes that have already been annihilated by reckless capitalism, something that the director and his team use this film to vehemently oppose.