The black-and-white lensing is superbly evocative, the love letters used in voiceover are moving, yet Ivo M. Ferreira’s “Letters From War” struggles to match the emotional richness of those missives with something equally striking. Based on the epistles of Antonio Lobo Antunes, written when the aspiring author was a doctor shipped out to Angola during Portugal’s bloody colonial war in the early 1970s, the pic uses his letters to his pregnant wife to showcase the affectingly expressed love they shared, but the overuse of this device weakens its initial power, and while Ferreira captures the troubled life of a soldier in war, his picture of the Angolans remains an anemic one. Fests will call, though international play may be a tougher sell.
The letters themselves, overflowing with genuinely stirring language likely to cause an instant outbreak of lumps-in-throats, were published in 2005, after the death of their recipient, Lobo Antunes’ first wife, Maria Jose Xavier da Fonseca e Costa. They reveal a budding author already mastering a robust language full of descriptive power, intellectual yet driven by emotions. Ferreira (“April Showers”) marbles “Letters” with these declarations of ardor, which begin expressing the pain of separation and then, over the three years, become an indictment of the Portuguese dictatorship that sent soldiers to fight in Angola, and finally a powerful anti-war tract.
Spoken by the recipient (Margarida Vila-Nova) rather than the writer (Miguel Nunes), they’re accompanied by varied eloquently lensed scenes, from Antonio sailing out in luxury to the expansive Angolan landscape and the bloody horrors of the conflict. The author goes from the incongruous comfort of the cruise ship taking him to war, to the army base, where his yearning for his wife and their as-yet unborn daughter increases in intensity. Over the coming months he’s awakened to indignation, furious that the war has separated him from Maria Jose and also outraged that men are dying for an unnecessary conflict.
Audiences unfamiliar with the history and legacy of Portuguese colonialism may feel at a disadvantage, since “Letters” is not meant to be a primer on the conflict, but instead an intensely personal view of love and war. The problem stems from the way the screenplay ends up competing with the letters, which is inevitably a losing battle, even though Ferreira and co-scripter Edgar Medina base their scenario on Lobo Antunes and others in Angola at the time. The influence of “The Thin Red Line” as well as “Tabu” is also heavily felt; that’s not to say similar themes can’t be revisited, but the burden of such weighty inspirations can’t be worn lightly.
Certain scenes succeed extremely well: Lobo Antunes writes of coming to loathe the color green, omnipresent in uniforms, army housing, the landscape, etc. Though he’s shooting in black-and-white, Ferreira nicely conveys Antonio’s overload, melding image with words. As the film goes on however, the pileup of narration threatens to turn numbing, such as a fevered recitation of Maria Jose’s traits, set against a sequence of their bodies in bed, thousands of miles apart. “Nothing has measure or containment like my mad prose,” says Antonio as he falls victim to the soldier’s curse of paranoia and longing, yet listening to so much prose without measure makes for an often unsatisfactory cinematic experience (just as reading books of letters in one sitting feels unnatural).
Maria Jose is an evanescent figure glimpsed roaming their home in Portugal, a passive evocation of Antonio’s imagination rather than a fleshed-out being. Since these are Lobo Antunes’ letters, maybe that’s OK, but surely some kind of humanizing scene involving the local Angolan population could have been included? Only the chief-like figure Catolo (Orlando Sergio), with his harem of girls, has a personality, and is a standard scene of dancing bare-breasted women really necessary when they’re not given any other role? Perhaps Lobo Antunes never associated with the natives, yet if so, that needs to be stated somehow.
Despite such criticisms, there’s no denying the impact of Joao Ribeiro’s sumptuous two-tone lensing, richly taking advantage of the full complexity of darks and lights. The open Angolan plains, topped by clouds sculpted in the air, provide a sense of the geography being fought over, and scenes after landmine explosions or battles are suitably charged with senseless violence. Music is mostly sampled from mid-to-late 20th century composers like Fernando Lopes-Graca and Gyorgy Ligeti, whose late Romantic scores, full of minor chords, add to the emotional pull.