The unquantifiable toll of Mozambique’s long civil war suffuses “Sleepwalking Land,” an emotionally affecting tale-within-a-tale helmed and scripted by Brazilian-born Teresa Prata. Originating with the wanderings of a young boy and an older man before spinning into a story that adds layers of resonance, this long-gestating pic works as a parable for a society struggling to cope with its evisceration. While the simple, not simplistic, stories may try some viewers with their apparent naivete, this is a fine fest item deserving of further recognition.
Old Tuahir (Aladino Jasse) and young Muidinga (Nick Lauro Teresa) wander the war-torn landscape of Mozambique, both carrying the burden of a past too horrible to remember. Tuahir is neither father nor relative to Muidinga, but a pragmatic, seemingly hard-hearted protector: “Never put your heart into anything,” he warns the boy.
After hiding from a gang of roving thugs, they come upon a burned-out bus littered with dead bodies. Among the possessions they find a manuscript Muidinga reads to the illiterate older man. It tells the story of Kindzu (Helio Fumo), a young man whose entire family is slaughtered. Escaping from the ruins of his village, he takes a boat and meets refugee Farida (Ilda Gonzalez), who’s a squatter on an abandoned ship, waiting for her son to find her.
Kindzu wants to take her away to a land without such bloodshed, but she refuses to leave the ship until her son is found, so he volunteers to look. While reading Kindzu’s story, Muidinga becomes convinced he is Farida’s lost son, and ventures forth, against Tuahir’s advice, to find her.
Along the way, Muidinga and Tuahir meet others with their own horror stories to tell. In the end, the road circles back on itself, leading nowhere — an apt metaphor for their inability to escape their destiny. Prata adds a bit of magical realism to help them break away, with Muidinga digging a hole that turns into a river that carries them out to sea, but despite this lovely image, the consequences don’t offer salvation.
Still, Prata manages to inject enough warmth and humor to keep depression from settling too heavily on the proceedings. Apart from one bizarre, inexplicable moment, the stories have a gentle, if appropriately downbeat warmth. While thesping is fairly basic, the performers have enough charm to forgive any amateurishness.
Lensing is accomplished within a deliberately circumscribed manner, unfolding like a storybook, and tricky shifts between stories are largely well handled by the capable editing. Music, too, is understated and elegiac.