Focus on Cartas da Guerra (Letters From War)

Letters From War by Ivo M Ferreira

Like a letter you get through the post, Letters from War [+], by Portuguese director Ivo M. Ferreira, in competition at the 66th Berlin Film Festival, is like a lovely surprise which, when you open it, leaves you feeling warm inside with a touch of heartache.

The first surprise is that the film, which is based on a collection of letters published in 2005 that António Lobo Antunes, a doctor posted in Angola during the Portuguese colonial war, wrote to his pregnant wife in 1971, is not an adaptation in the classic sense of the term, which usually implies the dramatization of the content of a text. Right at the beginning, it’s even a bit disconcerting that the reading out of the letters, first by the husband (Miguel Nunes) and then by his wife (Margarida Vila-Nova) until the end of the film, continues beyond the first few minutes of the film, without turning to dialogue, but the black and white pictures, fragments of the life of a soldier, are so magnificent, and the sounds and music so well incorporated into the story, that the harmony between the pictures and the narration soon has the viewer hooked. 

What is so quick to enthral audiences is the power of the loving relationship which is the beating heart of the film, the way in which what we see on screen fuses together with the voice of the wife left behind in Portugal as she reads the missives from her husband, her distraught lover and father to the child she’s carrying – whilst over in Angola, he talks about her, her and the baby. Incidentally, this epistolary film has no real plotline strictly speaking. First of all, what we see is not quite a faithful representation of the content of the letters, or of the context in which they were written (they obviously follow the chronology of our doctor’s stay in Angola), accompanied, for the young doctor in exile, by the writing of a novel. What the entire film hinges on, is this absolute feeling, this uncontrollable passion which sometimes takes the form of solitude, sometimes hope, sometimes unbearable waiting, sometimes all-consuming desire – conveyed by a sizzling prose that is the work of Ferreira and his co-screenwriter Edgar Medina. What Letters from War evokes first and foremost, is a presence; a co-presence, of one being with another but also of an era with ours, and thousands of lives lost with all those who found themselves cut off, far from Angola. 

Ultimately, the film which once again gives Lisbon production company O Som e a Fúria the opportunity to represent Lusitanian film at Berlin, after the success of Tabu [+] by Miguel Gomes (which was also his third fictional feature), is at once an African story and a superb love story which serves as a highly emotional reminder of the colonial tragedies of the last century.

By Bénédicte Prot