Well-known Portuguese screenwriter Margarida Cardoso smoothly segues into feature directing in “The Murmuring Coast,” a tension-laden drama set in an unnamed African country (actually Mozambique) during a small civil war in the late ’60s. Unusually, not the war but events occurring around it are film’s subject, as viewed through the eyes of an officer’s young bride. A far cry from the murky minimalism of many Portuguese art films, pic tells an engrossing if upsetting story about the tired end of of colonialism. Pic is rigorously directed, with a tropical, retro look that anchors it in the imagination. It’s well worth a peek from adventurous arthouse distribs.
Evita (Beatriz Batarda) narrates her story from a nostalgic future, when she returns to the African coastal town and the colonial hotel she lived in with her new husband, Luis (Filipe Duarte). She looks like a ’60s postcard at her wedding reception, surrounded by military personnel and their wives. The idyll is only marred by some dead bodies that wash up on the beach, but since they’re Africans, no one pays them much heed.
The atmosphere of hidden violence grows when Luis and his strong-arm commanding officer, Capt. Forza Leal (Adriano Luz), take Evita and the captain’s sensual wife Helena (Monica Calle) out for target practice on a hapless flock of pink flamingos. The men’s maschismo is underlined by the way they treat the women like dolls. Before taking his leave to go on a months-long military campaign against the rebels, Luis asks his bride to promise she won’t leave their hotel room until he gets back.
Evita hardly recognizes the young mathematician she thought she was marrying and, though she looks obedient enough in her stiff miniskirts, she refuses to comply. Awaiting his return, she spends her lonely days wandering around the bad parts of town and visiting Helena, nicknamed Helen of Troy after her husband dispatched her lover in a game of Russian roulette. She falls in with some Portuguese newsmen who tell her about a few atrocities their countrymen have committed.
Amid mounting tension in town between the white colonialists and the Africans, a cloud of locusts heralds the return of the far-from-victorious army, and Evita and Luis’ story ends on a tragic note.
Batarda traverses this treacherous moral universe with reined-in melancholy, though her actions suggest a bolder Evita must existinside her. Though Calle is a chilling victim as the humiliated Helena, a prisoner of her own guilt, perfs generally take a back seat to the film’s mysterious atmosphere of violence, ironically contrasted to the beautiful tropical paradise.
The grainy geometry of cinematographer Lisa Hagstrand’s images coupled with Ana Vaz and Augusto Mayer’s sets imitate a stylish ’60s look. Bernardo Sassetti underscores the period look with a medley of sad and romantic tunes, while costume designer Silvia Meireles amuses with Evita’s vast wardrobe of clothes.