Probably most meaningful to Portuguese viewers, "Captains of April" is an ambitious, if ultimately flawed, attempt to record, in stirring scenes of the masses chanting victory and freedom slogans, the historic day of April 25, 1974, when a military coup overthrew 40 years of fascism and ended Portugal's colonial wars in Africa. The feature directing debut of well-known actress Maria de Medeiros re-creates the excitement and emotion of the Portuguese revolution through the eyes of the idealistic young captains who awkwardly and remarkably led the fed-up army in an almost bloodless coup. Surprisingly moving in large crowd scenes, pic stumbles in clumsy personal stories that distract more than they add. Beyond the festival circuit, it will have to hunt down auds as politically idealistic as its characters and willing to plunge headlong into an exhilarating piece of foreign history.

Probably most meaningful to Portuguese viewers, “Captains of April” is an ambitious, if ultimately flawed, attempt to record, in stirring scenes of the masses chanting victory and freedom slogans, the historic day of April 25, 1974, when a military coup overthrew 40 years of fascism and ended Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa. The feature directing debut of well-known actress Maria de Medeiros re-creates the excitement and emotion of the Portuguese revolution through the eyes of the idealistic young captains who awkwardly and remarkably led the fed-up army in an almost bloodless coup. Surprisingly moving in large crowd scenes, pic stumbles in clumsy personal stories that distract more than they add. Beyond the festival circuit, it will have to hunt down auds as politically idealistic as its characters and willing to plunge headlong into an exhilarating piece of foreign history.

A series of stomach-churning B&W photos of atrocities succinctly sums up the horrors of Portugal’s wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, and puts the revolution in context. Antonia (Medeiros), a militant teacher, begs her minister-brother in vain to get a student out of the hands of the secret police. Interrogation and off-camera torture scenes follow. Meanwhile, young lovers bid a tearful farewell at the station as he is drafted into the army, in a presumably deliberate throwback to World War II cliches.

Before the boy can be sent to Africa, however, the earnest young Capt. Maia (rising Italo thesp Stefano Accorsi) somehow persuades the soldiers in a provincial army outpost to join him in rebellion. With pal Lobao (Spanish actor Fele Martinez) at his side, Antonia’s estranged husband, Manuel (French Frederic Pierrot), storming the radio station and a cynical older officer (Portugal’s Joaquim de Almeida) tagging along unhelpfully, Maia marches on Lisbon with a convoy of rusty tanks and raw recruits. Calling themselves the Movement of the Armed Forces, these green troops and low-ranking officers besiege the national guard barracks where the president and his ministers are encamped, until the government is forced to surrender.

So fervently pro-revolution at times it could be dated 1968, with youths sticking flowers in rifles and crowds singing freedom songs in joyful chorus, the film struggles to find its own voice in telling a story that clearly has deep meaning to the director. Medeiros injects a modicum of critical perspective by comically contrasting the seriousness of a coup d’etat with the young heroes’ nonviolent aspirations. Their unsoldierly reluctance to hurt anyone nearly ruins them on several occasions, but they land on their feet when the rest of the armed forces joins their side without firing a shot.

In the long run, however, this comic-tragic tone proves too delicate to keep in balance, and scenes swing wildly between tortured students and tanks rumbling to a halt at red lights. To judge from the film, the MAF was as chaotically bumbling as a TV sitcom ensemble, with a disembodied voice from headquarters advising Maia to do the best he can in warding off attack from the navy and the national guard.

Structure is also a problem; the last half of the film is one extended happy ending, with intervals of problem-solving. With the victory of the coup a foregone conclusion, story circles around without much focus.

An engaging international cast is led by the excellent Accorsi as the bumbling but ardent true-believer Maia, who modestly steps back into the shadows after changing his country’s history. Martinez and Pierrot more conservatively play it straight, keeping the humor under wraps. Weak link is Medeiros’ character, who’s extraneous to the main storyline and flatly played.

Cinematographer Michel Abramowicz fills the screen with large numbers of extras, who give the film an unusually expansive look. The people’s enthusiasm for democracy and peace finds an echo in Antonio Victorino D’Almeida’s stirring score.

Captains of April

France-Portugal

Production

A JBA Prod. (Paris)/Mutante Filmes (Lisbon) production in association with Alia Film (Rome). Produced by Jacques Bidou. (International sales: Art Box, Paris.) Directed by Maria de Medeiros. Screenplay, Medeiros, Eve Deboise.[###]

Crew

Camera (color), Michel Abramowicz; editor, Jacques Witta; music, Antonio Victorino D'Almeida; production designer, Guy-Claude Francois; art director, Agusti Camps Salat; costume designer, Sabina Daigeler; sound (Dolby SRD/DTS), Jerome Thiault; assistant director, Joao Pedro Ruivo. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 12, 2000. Running time: 124 MIN.

With

Maia - Stefano Accorsi
Antonia - Maria de Medeiros
Gervasio - Joaquim de Almeida
Manuel - Frederic Pierrot
Lobao - Fele Martinez

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