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Film review: 'Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin'


With his captivating new documentary “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin,” renowned director Werner Herzog pays tribute to a close friend and kindred spirit: adventurer, journalist, and novelist Bruce Chatwin.

The two men struck up a friendship in the ‘80s, and the decades-long relationship that followed also fueled a fruitful collaboration. Their influence on one another manifested in both Chatwin’s books and Herzog’s films (Chatwin’s 1980 novel “The Viceroy of Ouidah” would become the inspiration for Herzog’s 1987 film “Cobra Verde”) until Chatwin’s death in 1989 at the age of 49 due to AIDS-related causes.

Making one of his most personal films, Herzog embarks on a pilgrimage of sorts, progressing through a series of encounters inspired by his friend’s travels around the world. These encounters track various threads that wove their way through Chatwin’s life, exploring themes that so fascinated his friend: “wild characters, strange dreamers, and big ideas about the nature of human existence.”

Chatwin was a restless soul, and we get ample evidence of the writer’s dedication to the philosophy that, “the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.”

The narrative is divided into eight chapters, each one devoted to a theme or ideas that evolved into the subject of Chatwin’s books, and these disparate pieces grow into a moving portrait. Herzog blends in his own personal recollections, biographical details, and discussion of the more headier ideas raised in Chatwin’s writings. We also get to see sweeping shots of the extraordinary scenery and locations that formed “the landscape of his soul.”

Some of those threads we follow include an examination of giant sloths, the prehistoric creatures that fascinated Chatwin as a child, and whose origins he later traced in his journeys as an adult. Another digression includes a fascinating discussion about songlines, the aboriginal tradition where paths across the land are recorded through song.

Herzog attempts to capture his friend’s spirit through glimpses of Chatwin’s writing archives, film clips, and interviews with Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare. The latter amusingly describes the way Chatwin had a tendency to embellish certain facts in his writing, saying he “never told half-truths, he told truths-and-a-half.”

The tone of “Nomad” is reflective, and the pace can sometimes be overly deliberate. But it’s filled with lovely moments, as when Elizabeth pauses her recollections to echo the call of a cuckoo bird in the distance, or Herzog becoming visibly overwhelmed while talking about taking possession of Chatwin’s trusty rucksack, given to him by Chatwin on his deathbed.

In the end “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” makes for a touching homage to a friendship between two men united by their shared curiosity and fascination with the wonders of the world.

“Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin”
(NR), Directed by Werner Herzog
Now playing virtually at the Dryden Theatre

Adam Lubitow is CITY's film critic. Feedback on this review can be directed to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY's arts & entertainment editor, at [email protected].