"The Murmuring Coast": Interior and exterior conflict By Lars Audun Braten
in 15th Oslo Films From The South
Portuguese filmmaker Margarida Cardoso (born 1963) has set her first feature fiction film in the previous Portuguese colony Mozambique. This choice of setting has allowed Cardoso to obtain a broad range of themes, as she combines a carefully constructed feministic lead character and her personal and moral awakening with a political indictment of Portuguese colonial arrogance and racism, the role of the media in a serious political and ethical conflict, and most importantly, the dominant role of males in heterosexual relationships. Cardoso tells her story in a subtle, but kind of drowsy mood, using excellent camerawork and melancholy music to express the feelings of the female lead and the coming fall of, at least officially, the European dominance of Africa. If there is a weak point in Cardoso’s film, it is the fact that her historical film does not say anything important about today’s political situation in Mozambique and Africa.
The Murmuring Coast, which is set in a time when the Portuguese colonial rule of Mozambique is nearing its end, (Mozambique got its independence from Portugal in 1975), opens with the wedding party of Portuguese army lieutenant Luis (Filipe Duarte) and Evita (Beatriz Batarda). Evita, who is present in almost every shot of this film, and clearly is the carrier of the director’s political conscience towards imperialism, has just arrived in Mozambique, and does not hesitate to voice her opinion of the conflict. This annoys Luis’ captain and superior officer Jaime (Adriano Luz), who is the embodiment of fascism in this film. A man of military virtues and honour, always putting the military code in front of human charity, Jaime also has a racist view of the native population. Luis, to whom Jaime is a father figure demanding respect, is embarrassed by his wife’s bold statements, but leaves it to Jaime to “correct’ her, as Luis is too weak or unwilling to control his wife like Jaime does with his wife, the desperately sad Helena (superbly portrayed by Monica Calle). But as the two male leads, who are absent from the screen during most of the film, have to leave to fight the native rebels seeking independence, Evita finds her own truth in a country falling apart.
Imperial racism is portrayed not only by the two male leads and the massive hypocrisy and arrogant ignorance of the Portuguese military, but by a series of incidents where people are poisoned and killed by alcoholic drink containing poison. When the African men die as a result of this, it is viewed as tragic accidents by the white Portuguese inhabitants, who do not question the economical mechanisms which sacrifice the poor. But when a Portuguese alcoholic writer dies from the same poisoning, the imperialists attack the black population and claim it was murder. This is a fine metaphor for the sheer injustice of imperialistic capitalism and exploitation, something which Cardoso also indicts by the inclusion of Helena ‘s awful treatment of her black maid.
On a more personal level, The Murmuring Coast shows how Evita gradually comes to distrust her own image of her newly wed husband, as she learns what horrors he has performed in the name of protecting the white population from rebel fighters. Luis also wants to control his wife by asking Evita to stay locked inside their hotel room for months while he is away, something Evita refuses to do. Helena though, imprisons herself voluntarily. Jaime is a thunderstorm of male chauvinist and racist morality, a violent reminder of male dominance in heterosexual relationships. Cardoso deconstructs male superiority by letting Evita perform infidelity in her husband’s absence, and her involvement with journalist Alvaro (Luis Sarmento) lets her find her own truth about white male dominance. Evita also starts seeking the truth about the poisonings, but the fact that this does not lead to conclusions only prove that there is no media or official interest in finding the culprits. At least not until a white person dies.
Cardoso’s stylistic set-up includes a combination of emotionally powerful close-ups of the actors, who all perform very well in this film, and long shots. It is interesting to see how her close ups reveal personal significance, while the long shots have more political meaning. Cardoso and photographer Lisa Hagstrand also uses quite long takes with both static and mobile camera, which adds a certain amount of dynamism to this beautifully slow and obviously melancholic film. There is a sadness in all the characters, a sadness that in some instances is explained, but others left to the audience to interpret. The first hour of this two-hour film has little music, but Bernardo Sassetti’s score claims more attention during the second hour, when Evita’s political and personal consciousness is awakening, almost in synchronization with the music, which is made up of a sad piano and a bit more pompous violins. The film has a drowsy feeling to it, comparable to Christine Jeffs’ brilliant first feature Rain; in both films this drowsy feeling shows the decadence of dominance, in Rain the decadent and hedonistic way of life of rich, bored and alcoholic parents, in The Murmuring Coast the decadence of imperial, military rule.
Cardoso has successfully included all these issues in her first feature, and on the way she has granted a female character independence from her husband, her country and the unpleasant realities of the racism her colour of skin represented on the African continent not too many years ago. And, just on a different level, still does.