"Sleepwalking Land": A Walk With Love and Death By Sheila Johnston

in 12nd Kerala International Film Festival

by Sheila Johnston

Sleepwalking Land (Terra Sonâmbula) represents two exceptional debuts. It is a first film by Teresa Prata, based on a first novel, by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto. Published in 1992, the book was chosen by an international panel as one of the twelve best African books of the 20th century (it was, however, not translated into English until 2006). And Prata does it proud in her simple yet poetic adaptation.

Set at the end of the country’s vicious, 17-year-long civil war, Sleepwalking Land consists of two parallel and, it seems at first, only loosely related storylines. In the framing narrative, a small boy and an old man wander through a desolate, dangerous country whose soul has been sucked out by decades of violence. The boy, Muidinga, is an orphan; the man, Tuahir, is his protector, though he has lost his belief in human goodness and constantly cautions his companion against forming emotional attachments.

In the opening scene, they come across a burnt-out bus full of charred corpses. Taking refuge there, they find a notebook belonging to one of the dead men which relates his own adventures. Each night around their campfire, the boy reads passages from it to the illiterate Tuahir.

Seen in a series of flashbacks, the second storyline tells of how the diary’s sweet-natured young author, Kindzu, fell in love with a beautiful woman living alone on a ghostly ship, and how he promised to go and look for her lost son. That search took him on an odyssey of his own through a series of extraordinary and heart-breaking encounters. As he reads, Muidinga becomes convinced that this lost son is none other than himself (the film leaves it open as to whether this is wishful thinking or the truth of the matter) and resolves to set out with Tuahir to find the phantom ship. Their journey — truly a form of sleepwalking — has the eerie logic of a bad dream, constantly leading them around in vicious circles back to the bus where they began.

Couto’s book uses magical realism to transform his country’s experience into a surreal waking nightmare, and the film is couched in the same vein. Yet magical realism is a genre difficult to carry off on screen: consider the prosaic adaptations of Gabriel García Márquez work by Francesco Rosi (Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1987) or Mike Newell (Love in the Time of Cholera, 2007).

That Prata has kept control of her material and succeeded, with her much more modest means, where these old hands have failed is a really impressive achievement. She was born in Brazil, grew up in Mozambique and studied in Portugal and Germany, and has studied the piano, biology and film-making. This rich mix of influences feeds into her work and, beneath its artless surface, lends it a satisfying complexity (the haunting original score, by Alex Goretzski, is, for example, an unusual but very effective choice).

The film omits some of Couto’s more flamboyantly fantastical elements, such as a dwarf with supernatural powers who appears out of the sky. Its early stretches rely instead on poetic dialogue to weave their spell. Someone suggests sowing corpses in order to grow new people, or proposes the animistic belief that plants and stones are descended from human beings. Only two-thirds of the way through the story do events take a visually extraordinary turn when Muidinga digs in the dust and conjures up a river (the stunning moment is realised, not through an expensive special effect but by basic sleight-of-hand editing).

If Sleepwalking Land has a weakness, it’s in the expository stages. Some viewers might see longueurs in its two parallel shaggy-dog road movies which each ambles through a stream of colourful but, apparently, inconsequential encounters. The film’s impact is a slow-burning, cumulative one. It gradually assembles a fresco of a country which, like the characters, has lost its way, yet warmly affirms the people’s determination to survive the atrocities. It’s steeped in a tremendous innocence that even enables Prata to carry off a very curious sexual initiation scene.

As the two time-strands converge on each other, it at last become clear that the framing story begins at the exact moment where the flashback ends and the final scene is the reverse-angle mirror image of the opening shot. It’s a tragic moment — but paradoxically a beautiful, and even hopeful, one.