Berlin Review: Letters From War

Ivo M. Ferreira’s Portuguese black and white Art-house drama, 'Letters From War', based on the love letters of Antonio Lobo Antunes and his experience in war-torn Angola in the 1970s, is like young love – initially full of passion but fizzles out quickly.

With ‘Letters From War’, Portuguese Ivo M. Ferreira tackles the war years of one of his native country’s most famous authors, Antonio Lobo Antunes when he was working as a doctor during the Portuguese Colonial War in Angola. Shot in black and white, the film juxtaposes the love letters he sent to his wife (which were published in 2005) and his experience of living in war-torn Angola during the early 70s.

Joseph Walsh

Shot in black and white, Ivo M. Ferreira’s ‘Letters From War’ opens with a shot of what is revealed to be a ship transporting Portuguese troops to Angola. On board is a young Antonio Lobo Antunes, played with convincing pathos by Miguel Nunes. A woman’s voice later revealed to be Antunes’ pregnant wife, Maria José (Margarida Vila-Nova) reads aloud the longing letter he has sent her.

This establishes a pattern which Ferreira uses for the rest of the film, where the intensely romantic, full-blooded love letters are contrasted with the images on the screen that range from the bloody horrors of war to snapshots of tribal villages or barracks life. As this pattern continues, Antunes’ increased longing for his wife intensifies, but due to the repetitive use of the same device, the impact becomes weaker and weaker.

There are too few moments when we are given respite from the voiceover, which rapidly loses its effectiveness. We are occasionally given pauses which allow insight into the life of secondary (almost exclusively white) characters.

Ferreira appears to be much more concerned with the tone and subject of the letters than the historical context in which they were written. The effect is that much of what is happening on screen can be confusing at best and alienating at worse.

Ferreira is clearly more concerned with love and war in a general sense, using Antunes’ letters to explore this theme rather than making a comment on colonialism. More unforgivable is his dismissive treatment of the Angolan characters, who are deeply under constructed, and stereotypical.

While Ferreira’s decision to shoot the film in black and white possesses a particular beauty, given that the backdrop is Angola, it would have perhaps been more fitting to take advantage of its natural beauty and palate.

The endless hunger to be reunited with his wife means that the letters become more and more intense, including a laborious letter in which Antunes lists a seemingly endless amount of pet names for his wife (some very bizarre) that reaches nauseating levels.

While the letters are Antunes’ words (and he is now regarded as a much-celebrated writer), delivered in this context they become a point of humour rather than passion, and simply show a young man, far away from his wife, longing for the comforts of home.

‘Letters From War’ is an endurance test of patience and gives very little reward. Comparisons to Miguel Gomes’ ‘Tabu’ are likely. However, Gomes’ skill remains far superior to Ferreira, who has taken a good idea for an exploration of two grand themes and pushed it to extraordinary levels of tedium.

Overall verdict:

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