'Letters From War' ('Cartas da guerra'): Berlin Review

Letters from War Still 3 - Miguel Nunes -H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Gorgeous to look at and listen to, though less than the sum of its parts.

Ivo M. Ferreira's third feature stars Miguel Nunes as the young Antonio Lobo Antunes, a combat medic who wrote the titular correspondence before becoming a celebrated novelist.

A Portuguese combat medic stationed in 1971 Angola — then Portuguese East Africa, still four years away from independence — suffers a severe case of saudade in Letters From War (Cartas da Guerra), the third and by far most ambitious film from writer-director Ivo M. Ferreira (April Showers). The twist here is that the titular correspondence refers to the actual wartime letters of Antonio Lobo Antunes, who would later become one of Portugal’s most celebrated novelists. In the film, however, he’s simply a young soldier struggling with the absence of his pregnant (first) wife, who’s back in Portugal, and, to a lesser extent, his political ideas, which keep sliding to the left the more the Portuguese Colonial War drags on. 

Shot in crisp black-and-white on location in Angola, this film can’t help but recall Tabu by Ferreira’s colleague and compatriot Miguel Gomes, which was also produced by O som e a furia and which also had its world premiere in the Berlin competition. However, this is in many ways a more traditional arthouse film that combines Antunes’s letters, heard in a voice-over, with images that recreate, rather convincingly and on an impressive scale, the life of a Portuguese army doctor in Africa. Though festivals will be ready takers, this will be a tougher proposition commercially, especially in territories where Antunes isn’t a name author.

Antonio (Miguel Nunes) is first spied being shipped over to Angola. It takes a while for the film to establish which one of the soldiers’ faces is his, suggesting he’s one man among many, all with similar stories. Except in the opening and closing scenes, all of Antonio’s letters are read by a female voice, presumably that of his spouse, Maria Jose (actress Margarida Vila-Nova, the director’s wife), who is glimpsed in what feels more like the feverish imagination of Antonio than scenes from her actual life. Unlike a film like Margarida Cardoso’s The Murmuring Coast (2004), based on the novel about the Portuguese in Mozambique by Lidia Jorge, there’s no sense of female agency here, as Ferreira sticks rigidly to Antunes’s perspective throughout.

The writing, credited to the director and Edgar Medina, seems to have been more of an editing job, deciding on which (parts of which) letters to include and then how to illustrate them. In general, the screenwriters seem more interested in the protagonist’s personal struggles — which concentrate mainly on the fact he’s far away from home for months on end and misses his wife and their first child that she’s carrying — than with his evolving ideas on politics.

Quite early on, Antonio explains in one of his letters that he’s beginning to realize he "can’t live without a political conscience" and that he’s gradually turning more and more into a leftie. He plays chess with a captain (Joao Pedro Vaz) who’s been part of the opposition and who might have influenced his thinking, though unfortunately the film doesn’t tackle politics head-on very often or meaningfully enough to really get a sense of Antonio’s political transformation. There are some visual suggestions, such as a politician’s portrait dumped in a toilet, and Antonio’s rather vague admission that "being here is eating the core of my soul," but he also admits to "understanding Che Guevara" and the excitement of survival, which seems to contradict the idea that "war turns us all into insects," as he explains in practically the same breath.

Did Antunes not explicitly explore his growing political conscience more and more deeply in his letters because he assumed his wife wouldn’t be interested in (his) politics, or did Ferreira and Medina simply decide to concentrate on his personal struggles because they thought they were more interesting or easily relatable? It’s hard to tell, though the fact that this question arises at all does reveal the limits of this kind of biopic which follows its source material so closely. (There are few scenes with regular dialogue between the soldiers instead of the omnipresent voice-over.)

That said, the relationship between the aspiring writer and the absent mother of his (future) firstborn comes across as an intense affair even when only seen and heard from one side. It is practically a feature-length illustration of the (untranslatable) concept of saudade — a type of longing for something or someone that isn’t there and can’t be there. The film’s highlight, as well as a good sense of how dense and effective Antunes’ prose can be, is a cascade of fanciful descriptions of his loved one that suggests an increasingly intense form of lovemaking through words alone. (In Tabu, Gomes applied the concept of saudade to the larger post-colonial context as well, which is much less the case here.) Perhaps surprisingly, Antonio is also very frank about being offered other women more than once in Angola; his rather dry admission that two Portuguese chanteuses "were the first white women I’ve seen in three months” practically drips with blue-balled agony. 

Nunes, who became famous as a TV actor, has a pretty face but doesn’t always manage to match the intensity of his character’s prose, though this can at least partly be blamed on the fact he doesn’t have much direct dialogue that he can fall back on to suggest his character’s transformation. More impressive is the scale of the production, which feels rather large for an art house project and which is captured by cinematographer Joao Ribeiro in sinuously choreographed shots.  

Production companies: O som e a furia, Shortcuts International

Cast: Miguel Nunes, Margarida Vila-Nova, Ricardo Pereira, Joao Pedro Vaz, Simao Cayatte, Isac Graca, Francisco Hestnes Ferrreira

Director: Ivo M. Ferreira

Screenplay: Ivo M. Ferreira, Edgar Medina, based on the book 'D’Este Viver Aqui Neste Papel Descripto, Cartas da Guerra' by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Producers: Luis Urbano, Sandro Aguilar

Co-producers: Georges Schoucair, Michel Merkt

Director of photography: Joao Ribeiro

Production designer: Nuno G. Mello

Costume designer: Lucha d’Orey

Editor: Sandro Aguilar

Sales: The Match Factory


No rating, 105 minutes