Set during the repressive regime of Ethiopian dictator Haile Mariam Mengistu, "Teza" unfolds through the eyes of a German-educated intellectual who returns to his homeland full of naive idealism after the deposition of Haile Selassie.

Set during the repressive regime of Ethiopian dictator Haile Mariam Mengistu, “Teza” unfolds through the eyes of a German-educated intellectual who returns to his homeland full of naive idealism after the deposition of Haile Selassie. Although overlong and sometimes choked with political didacticism, the fifth feature from Washington, D.C.-based writer-helmer Haile Gerima (“Sankofa,” “Harvest: 3000 Years”), one of the independent cinema’s chief chroniclers of the African-American and African diaspora experience, ultimately rewards the viewer’s patience with a potent sense of Ethiopian history and culture. Subject matter and the director’s status ensure alternative theatrical play in the U.S. and long life in ancillary.

Anberber (low-key Aaron Arefe), who once hoped to eradicate disease in Ethiopia, ultimately comes to terms with his country’s chronic problems and the uselessness of his formal education in confronting its current realities. The attenuated story of his dislocation moves somewhat confusingly between the remote village of Anberber’s birth, where he winds up in 1990, broken in body and spirit; 1970s Cologne, Germany, where he studied medicine; and the revolutionary fervor of 1980s Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Pic’s exhausting-to-watch first 75 minutes seem to mirror Anberber’s initially disoriented state circa 1990. No shot lasts longer than a few seconds, and his memories jump schizophrenically backward and forward in time.

At the hour-and-a-quarter mark, the pace settles down and flashbacks to his experience in Addis Ababa unfold more conventionally. Some nightmarishly expressive cinematography brings home the instability and violence of the time, a period Gerima covered previously in his 1994 docu, “Imperfect Journey.”

Scenes of Anberber’s student days in Germany, played primarily in English, are the most awkward in tone. His return visit in 1989 coincides with destruction of the Berlin Wall and includes some shocking racist violence.

Gerima’s practice of showing an action through Anberber’s eyes, and then having him describe what he has seen in voiceover, disturbs the pic’s rhythm, as do its protracted discussions of socialist philosophies and sessions of self-criticism.

Perfs run the gamut from self-consciously theatrical to naturalistic. Appealing musical score co-created by Vijay Iyer and Jorga Mesfin with a host of traditional musicians, incorporates their sounds with electronic textures.

Tech credits are serviceable. At the Venice fest screening caught, the 35mm blowup from Super 16 and HD had numerous distracting scratches.

Teza

U.S.-Germany

Production

A Negod-gwad (U.S.)/Pandora Film (Germany) production, in association with Unlimited, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, with the participation of Filmstiftung NRW, WDR/ARTE, Filmfoerderung Hamburg-Schleswig-Holstein, Hubert Bals Fund, Fonds Sud Cinema Ministere de la Culture et de la Communication CNC, Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres France, Fonds Images Afrique, Union Europeenne (Fonds europeen de developpement), Communaute Urbaine de Strasbourg, Region Alsace. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Haile Gerima, Karl Baumgartner. Co-producers, Marie-Michele Cattelain, Philippe Avril. Directed, written by Haile Gerima.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16-and-HD-to-35mm), Mario Masini; editors, Gerima, Loren Hankin; music, Vijay Iyer, Jorga Mesfin; art directors, Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux, Seyum Ayana; costume designer, Wassine Hailu; sound (Dolby SRD), Martin Langenbach; associate producers, Joachim von Mengershausen, Salome Gerima. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 1, 2008. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 140 MIN.

With

Aaron Arefe, Abeye Tedla, Takelech Beyene, Teje Tesfahun, Nebiyu Baye, Mengistu Zelalem, Wuhib Bayu, Zenahbezu, Asrate Abrha, Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur, Veronika Avraham. (Amharic, German, English dialogue)

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more