'Djon Africa': Film Review | Rotterdam 2018

Easy-goin' Portuguese tale pours fresh grog into old bottles.

Miguel Moreira stars as the eponymous hero of Joao Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis' fiction-feature debut, world premiering in competition at the Netherlands event.

Cinema will seemingly never run out of stories in which sons go in search of their missing/lost fathers, but if the results were always as charming as Joao Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis' ambling picaresque Djon Africa, few audiences would complain. Written by Pedro Pinho, currently riding high on the film-festival circuit with The Nothing Factory, this co-production between Portugal and its former colonies Cape Verde and Brazil was one of the more notable world premieres at Rotterdam this year. Accessible and atmospheric, built around an engaging performance by Miguel Moreira as the eponymous "Djon," it should parlay a Tiger-competition slot at the long-running Dutch fest into further exposure at smaller events over the next year.

"Djon Africa" is in fact just one nickname adopted by a fellow baptized "Miguel" in honor of his dad, but who grew up in Lisbon chiefly under the care of his grandmother. Following a chance encounter with a stranger, the easygoing Miguel/Djon/Tibars — a Rastafarian who is laid-back on the verge of horizontal — asks his granny about his dad ("a bit of a player and a scoundrel").

Coming into a little money unexpectedly, he decides to go in search of the estranged parent in the latter's native Cape Verde islands off the African coast. The bulk of the action unfolds in this windswept, colorful archipelago, whose atmosphere is a world away from the gray, bland Lisbon suburb which constitutes our hero's 'hood. As the words of a rap tune in the opening moments promises, we "feel his ground and the weather of his country."

We see the towns and rural areas of Cape Verde through this outsider's receptive eyes ("It's obvious you're not from here," he's told shortly after arriving) as he conducts the quest in a halting, sometimes half-hearted manner. The search is essentially a pretext by which this habitual drifter, who hasn't quite made the full transition to responsible adulthood, can subconsciously move forward into a new maturity.

The wispy narrative likewise exists as an excuse for "Djon" to meet various vivid locals along the way, in a film which draws upon non-pro talent with tact and empathy — veteran goat-farmer Maria Antonia, who impulsively recruits the visitor to work on her land, is a particular scene-stealer. And while on paper Djon Africa suggests echoes of Portugal's austere auteur Pedro Costa (whose work often deals with Cape Verdean history and migrations), and even the Caribbean's current cinephile favorite Cocote by Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias, the picture actually operates at the more mainstream end of the current art house scene.

Previously best known for documentaries and shorts, plus 2012 mid-lengther Cat's Cradle, professional/personal couple Miller Guerra and Reis take their stylistic cues from their happy-go-lucky main character. Deploying hand-held camerawork, they unobtrusively conjure and largely manage to maintain a pleasant mood of seductive sensuality.

Switching from his usual cannabis to Cape Verde's firewater liquor "grogue," the intoxicated Djon gradually loses his bearings in the second half of the film, which itself succumbs to occasional waywardness and longueurs — and even the odd ill-advised experimental touch — on the way to a neatly ironic coda back home in Lisbon.

Production companies: Terratrema FilmesDesvia FilmesOllUma Pedra no Sapato
Cast: Miguel Moreira, Isabel Cardoso
Directors: Joao Miller Guerra, Filipa Reis
Screenwriter: Pedro Pinho
Producers: Rachel Ellis, Joao Miller Guerra, Samira Pereira, Pedro PinhoFilipa Reis
Cinematographer: Vasco Viana
Editors: Ricardo Pretti, Eduardo Serrano
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Tiger Competition)
Sales: Terratreme Films, Lisbon

In Portuguese
99 minutes