Irene (Lília Lopes) walks into the forest with a purpose, and that purpose becomes clear as she sits around contemplating the nature around her for a while, then moves towards the lake that lies on the outskirts of the trees. She stares out at the water, then takes off her shoes and tests the surface of the lake, but it is the bottle she produces from her bag that is most significant; she takes a swig, draining it, and walks out until she is waist deep. It is at that moment the poison she has swallowed takes effect and she collapses into the water. She leaves behind a family, and a father (Jorge Mota) who cannot bear to live without her...
Not exactly a barrel of laughs, The Forest of the Lost Souls was the debut feature for Portuguese director and writer José Pedro Lopes, after a few years spent making short works. Not that this was particularly lengthy, barely lasting over one hour and suggesting he had not got the short form out of his system, either that or he could not devise a plot that lasted long enough to be anything more than a skimpy tale stretched out to double its running time, and indeed this came across like two shorts linked together rather than one continuous narrative. Not that this was an issue, for he obviously had ideas provocative enough.
The first half was a two-hander, once Irene was out of the way in the opening ten minutes, which had Ricardo, her father, venturing out to the forest of the title (A Floresta das Almas Perdidas in its original Portuguese) to end his life as his daughter had done, except he is planning to use a hunting knife rather than poison. As he is preparing his spot amidst the trees, he realises he is being watched: by Carolina (the intriguing Daniela Love), who is perched atop a rock and initially seems quite hostile. It appears this woodland is a suicide spot, and popular too, judging by the amount of dead bodies they stumble over as they begin to chat about their personal choices.
Carolina is there to off herself as well, and though they both feel it would be hypocritical to ask the other person not to kill themselves, neither are keen on the idea for the person they have only just met. Nevertheless, they do eventually collaborate... whereupon the focus switched to Ricardo's other daughter Filipa (Mafalda Banquart) who understandably is wondering where her dad has got to. It was in this second part that the horror aspects became clearer, for what had gone before was like a suicidal, cross-generational Before Sunrise rather than a chilling suspense piece, though one supposes the chill was in what the characters intended to carry out. When one is revealed as far more destructive than we were led to believe, that was where the shocks arrived.
There was much about the apparent ritual of suicide, the working out the method, the leaving of a note, the search for a secluded place to carry out the act, and in a bleak twist a musing over what you would have to complain about if someone was so keen to help you along. This was all shot in unforgiving black and white to underline the grim qualities, so while it had its pictorial benefits it did render the whole enterprise resembling a German New Wave art film of the nineteen-seventies, and appropriately pitiless in that respect. There was a thread on the callousness of the younger generation in that they thought it was fine to leave their nearest and dearest with terrible heartache whether they were ending their lives or not, but then Ricardo wanted to exit this world leaving his family in the lurch, not-so-subtly indicating the cycle had to start somewhere. This was bracingly pessimistic and cynical to a degree but remained a beefed-up shorter work (or two) from someone not quite with the hang of the longer form. Music by Emanuel Grácio.