A Romanticized Attachment to Home

Isabella Akinseye of the 2016 Berlinale Talent Press reviews Ivo Ferreira’s Berlinale Competition entry LETTERS FROM WAR.

Ivo Ferreira’s LETTERS FROM WAR.

The Berlinale Competition film LETTERS FROM WAR (CARTAS DA GUERRA, Portugal) is based on a book by renowned Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes. The film focuses on the letters that Antonio, a young army doctor, sent to his wife from Angola between 1971 and 1973 during the colonial war.

Ivo Ferreira’s film is narrated chronologically, starting from Antonio’s first letter dated Jan 14th 1971, which he wrote when still on board the Vera Cruz sailing to Luanda, Angola. Antonio expresses sadness about leaving his pregnant wife behind in Portugal. This sets the tone for a series of letters he would write throughout the three-year period. His wife, who has very limited screen time, is heard reading each of his letters. We are only given glimpses of her responses or lack thereof through Antonio’s missives.

The director presents the Portuguese soldiers in a positive light; as victims fighting a ‘stupid war’ which they neither understand nor support. Paradoxically, the black soldiers are the ones killing their fellow black Angolans, a sight that Antonio cannot bear.

Despite his fascination towards African landscape and the warm reception he receives from the locals, Antonio does not fully blend in and remains faithful to his wife and country. While he becomes a godfather to one of the newborn babies and even temporarily takes in an orphaned child, his views on African traditions remain imperialistic. Witnessing a child marriage, Antonio expresses his disgust towards it in one of his letters. Yet he is powerless to do anything when a man says that he’d rather have his wife dying at home than having her moved to a nearby town for medical testing. “Only elephants go away to die,” he says.

While the film succeeds in presenting a romanticized version of his attachment to his homeland, one finds Antonio’s attitude inconsistent, vacillating between hope and despair without ever coming to his own. In what feels like an abrupt ending, he urges his family to join him in Angola in a last letter written against a picturesque rising sun.