A quietly impressive drama, U.S.-Tanzanian co-production "Maangamizi" avoids falling into New Age glibness despite script's potentially pandering mix of feminism, Western psychology, African mysticism and repressed-memory catharsis.

A quietly impressive drama, U.S.-Tanzanian co-production “Maangamizi” avoids falling into New Age glibness despite script’s potentially pandering mix of feminism, Western psychology, African mysticism and repressed-memory catharsis. Long in the making (principal photography was completed five years ago), pic reps a rare wade into multicultural spirituality that’s neither obscure nor oversimplified. Given all-black, femme-driven cast’s slim marquee value, and less-than-obviously marketable themes, indie production won’t be an easy theatrical sell. But grassroots appeal to specialized auds (particularly those inclined to follow the lead of Stateside “Color Purple” author Alice Walker, who’s already given filmmakers a few choice promotional quotes) could lead to sleeper status, with four-walling and video self-distribution probably the best tactics.

In a women’s mental hospital below Kilimanjaro, middle-aged Samehe (Amandina Lihamba) spends heavily medicated days staring out a window. She’s kept mum since arriving here years before. Nor does the very laid-back staff even try to reach her. Arrogant chief medico Dr. Moshi (Thecla Mjatta) flirts with the nurses and (possibly) molests patients. Colleague Dr. Odhiambo (Waigwa Wachira) is more conscientious, but as second-in-command has no power to change the general benign neglect atmosphere.

Arriving unexpectedly for a volunteer stint is Dr. Asira (BarbaraO), who’d become intrigued by the East African psychiatric ward when she and Odhiambo were U.S. med school students –and lovers, it seems. African-American visitor’s regal manner and exacting professional standards quickly irk the resident staff, not to mention casually sexist Moshi.

But Asira makes surprising headway with Samehe. Latter breaks longterm silence, thinking the female doc a savior sent by her trickster/spiritual guide Maangamizi (Mwanajuma Ali Hassan), an “ancient one” only Samehe can see or hear.

Pic wisely draws few stylistic or tonal lines between Samehe’s visions and everyday hospital life, suggesting these different consciousness planes are equally “real” in the larger sense.

Non-hyperbolic approach pays off when it becomes clear that Dr. Asira, too, must think past Western psychologizing to confront and heal her own well-buried past traumas.

Screenplay (by Queenae Taylor Mulvihill) is unhurried yet concise in focus. Results sport significant conceptual overlap with exec producer Jonathan Demme’s Toni Morrison adaptation “Beloved.” In its smaller-scaled, less ambiguous way, “Maangamizi” locates a similar healing intersection between Westernized identity, traditional African religious belief, and regenerative matriarchal strength.

Critiques here of institutional bureaucracy, misogyny, racism, and Christianity’s sometimes destructive missionary zeal aren’t especially subtle. But feature seldom overplays them, its confident understatement a small miracle given myriad hurdles (scant location tech support, cast/crew malaria bouts, et al.) first-time feature helmer Ron Mulvihill and Tanzanian-bred vet Martin Mhando (“Yomba Yomba,” “Mama Tumaini”) weathered en route to completion.

Leads BarbaraO (“Daughters of the Dust”) and Lihamba contribute strong work, former belying her Amazonian beauty with stern authority, while latter managing to maintain credence even when possessed by supernatural or family-abusive inner voices.

Bright local dress, handsome scenery, and Willie Earl Dawkins’ color lensing provide leavening visual notes; diverse soundtrack assembled and composed by Cyril Neville is another well-judged plus.

Maangamizi -- The Ancient One

U.S.-Tanzania

Production

A Gris-Gris Films production. Produced by Queenae Taylor Mulvihill, Martin Mhando. Co-producers, David Rosshirt, Casta Tungaraza, Leonard Merrill Kurz. Executive producers, Jonathan Demme, Joan Cunning, Steven Shareshian. Directed by Ron Mulvihill, Martin Mhando. Screenplay, Queenae Taylor Mulvihill.

Crew

Camera (color), Willie Earl Dawkins; editor, James B. Ling; music, Cyril Neville; sound, Gregory R. Beda, Joshua B. Graham; assistant directors, Alex Frayne, David Espline. Reviewed at Montreal Film Festival (World Cinema), Aug. 27, 2001. (Also in Mill Valley Film Festival -- World Cinema: Reflections of Our Times.) Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Amandina Lihamba, BarbaraO, Mwanajuma Ali Hassan, Waigwa Wachira, Thecla Mjatta, Adam S. Mwambile, Kasaka, Chemi Che Mponda-Kadete, Yacinta Tungaraza-Msomi, Christa Kombo, Janet Fabian, Mona Mwakalinga, Zinabu Bure, Professor Samahein.
(English and Swahili dialogue.)
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