As a colonialist childhood memoir, “Light Drops” exerts a Huck Finnish charm all its own. In fact, pic’s 14-year-old protagonist, Rui Pedro, is seen reading “Tom Sawyer” when he comes home to Mozambique for the fateful summer of 1958 that marks the end of his innocence. Helmer Fernando Vendrell has a knack for evoking the lazy idyllic days when the boy unquestioningly feels he belongs to the land and its people. With the right handling, nostalgic coming-of-age tale could do well at fest and arthouse venues.
Pic is framed by a middle-aged Rui Pedro’s return to a deserted government compound that triggers story’s nearly film-length flashback, beginning with his homecoming to that same compound 36 years previously. If for the 50-year-old Rui Pedro (Luis Sarmento) everything has changed, his teenage incarnation (Filipe Carvalho) finds everything reassuringly put back in its proper place — he reacquaints himself, for instance, with his best friend and mentor, the black ferryman Jacopo (Amaral Matos), holder of the secrets of woods and rivers and totems.
But when two white visitors arrive — an army official and a cousin from Johannesburg — bringing with them the arrogance of unthinking racism, they plant the seeds of sexual, economic and societal betrayal. His cousin seduces the friend-of-the-family maid, Ana (Alexandra Antunes), herself newly wedded to the homestead chauffeur. This sets in motion a whole train of tragic events, all seen through the eyes of a boy whose secret love for Ana is by turns lustful and brotherly.
Happening upon the family car abandoned in a field, Rui senses immediately that the chauffeur has discovered his wife’s infidelity. But nothing has prepared the lad for the terrible swift retribution of implacable tribal justice.
Concurrently, the army official oversees a new government policy that demands the cultivation of cotton to the detriment of subsistence crops, making the population dependent on wages for staples and ensuring near-starvation for many. The official also forces Rui to confront the political betrayal that his own father is perpetrating upon the Mozambican people in the name of civilization.
Film’s exposition is strikingly clear with careful dollops information and revelation. While dead-on in its tightly defined depiction of a child’s immersion in the sights, sounds and rituals of home, pic’s almost pre-pubescent restraint seem at odds with the cataclysmic sexual nature of subsequent events and with the painful confusion of divided loyalties roiling around in its young hero’s head.
Acting is first rate, particularly Carvalho as the young lead. Veteran Italian cinematographer Mario Masini, who dipped under the radar after lensing some of the seminal works of Bellochio and the Tavianis, here resurfaces to perfectly capture the slow-filtering light of the title. All other tech credits are excellent, particularly the unforced, atmospheric ’50s costume and decor.