After debuting at the Berlin International Film Festival in February earlier this year, Ivo Ferreira’s Letters from War features in this year’s competition at the Sydney Film Festival as something of an outlier. While there are other films about war (Land of Mine) and period pieces (The Childhood of a Leader) competing for the Sydney Film Prize this year, Letters from War – a period piece set during wartime, more or less – stands apart thanks to its unique structural conceit. Placing a heavy accent on a voice-over reading of personal letters written and sent home during Portugal’s Colonial War, Ferreira uses the reading of the text to organise the loose dramatic flow of the film, which recreates the experiences of an army doctor on a military campaign in East Angola. In doing this, the director inverts some of the usual approaches of the historical drama, creating a nuanced relationship to this historical period that skirts both personal and political history.
It’s worth noting that Ferreira’s film has its genesis in literature: the eponymous letters read aloud in the film were written by the major Portuguese novelist Antonio Lobos Antunes to his wife while he was stationed in East Angola from 1971-72 as an army doctor. These letters, published at the author’s consent by his daughters in 2004, offer a singular insight into what is a particularly dark period in Portuguese history. Unlike many other European countries, who either surrendered or lost their colonies relatively soon after the end of WWII, the politically isolated Portugal held on to their Northern African colonies well into the 1970s. With the Carnation revolution of 1974 marking the end of Portuguese colonialism, the nation looked back on over a decade of bloody fighting against guerrilla groups and Peoples’ armies in Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola. Like thousands of others, Antunes was conscripted into the Portuguese army and forced to do a two-year tour of Africa, and his letters clearly reflect a bitter attitude to this unpopular war. The film is thus in part a dramatisation of this lived experience, with both Antunes and his wife appearing as the film’s main characters – played by Miguel Nunes and Margarida Vila-Nova respectively – though the focus is much greater on Antunes.
While Antunes’ letters home can in a sense be treated as primary historical documents, Ferreira’s choice of letters for the film are decidedly personal, detailing the pain of the protagonist’s separation from his wife and later his newborn child. While there are some reflections on the absurdity and violence of the Portuguese campaign in these letters, as well as mention of the protagonist’s growing political awareness spurred on by his experiences, Ferreira makes us privy to the much more inwardly-focused and private thoughts of the writer. The film in large part deals with the effects of romantic separation, driven home by the reading of the letters almost solely by the intended recipient, Antunes’ wife, rather than its writer.1
Critics may find issue with this focus on the inner mind of its protagonist given the setting,2 and one wonders to what extent this focus is a product of the scope of Antunes’ letters or Ferreira’s choices for the film itself, which involved picking and choosing from a much larger collection. However, I found this blend of clearly private reflection heard in voice-over a quite striking counterpoint to the historical reproductions of the film’s image track. Indeed, this relationship between the voice-over text and the images to me marks the strongest aspect of Letters from War. Antunes’ text is dense and beautiful, equally as adept at creating atmosphere as it is capable of emotional depth, and it is omnipresent in the film, sometimes carpeting entire sequences. While the prominence of the voice in the film was criticised in the early reviews of the film,3 what’s interesting about this approach is that the images almost seem to come in a second position in this equation.
The images, more concerned with historical re-creation and the product of archival research more in line with the traditional period film, are a competing and somewhat secondary historical representation.4 Sometimes the text and image act in unison – in one sequence we hear a voice-over reading from a letter describing a soldier’s loss of a leg due to a land mine, and the scene is quite graphically brought to life. Yet Ferreira also includes moments of diversion; of contrapuntal movement between sound and image where they float instead tangentially alongside one another without necessarily meeting. Here, these slippages between what we hear in the text and what we see on screen seem to mirror the interval inherent in the sending and receiving of a letter, as if the passing of time has resulted in a shifting recollection of an event.
While not all of Ferreira’s choices in the films are a success – the sequences showing Antunes’ wife reading the letters back home are perfunctory, and could almost have been cut without the film losing anything – there is enough inventiveness with the historical drama form to keep things interesting. Moreover, Ferreira joins a recent spate of Portuguese directors (Gomes, Costa included) that have created original and often moving reflections on Portugal’s recent colonial past.
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