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Jorge Mourinha

There's a very thin line involved in supporting filmmaking from countries with little or no tradition: no matter how precarious the conditions are, and how worthwhile the efforts are, if the films aren't all that good you run the risk of either seeming condescending or cruel. And yet, most of contemporary filmmaking from the African countries that were Portuguese colonies fits that bill to a T. Angolan, Mozambican, Guinean cinema is so fragile and riddled with issues as to exist only with a healthy dollop of pan-European institutional support; few directors have managed to break through or maintain a constant production, and the finished product more often than not tries so hard to fit conventional ideas of what an "African film" should be that it all but fails to establish an identity.

Brazilian-Mozambican veteran Licínio Azevedo's Virgin Margarida is a good example of the problems: a great premise and the director, cast and crew's best efforts are simply not enough to make you overlook the many problems with the film, inspired by real-life events that took place in post-colonial Mozambique in the mid-1970s. It deals with the forced relocation of city prostitutes and dancers to "reeducation centers" in the countryside, meant to transform these victims of bourgeois decadence and male patriarchy into whole-hearted daughters of the socialist revolution that would stay home, tend to the child ...

There’s a very thin line involved in supporting filmmaking from countries with little or no tradition: no matter how precarious the conditions are, and how worthwhile the efforts are, if the films aren’t all that good you run the risk of either seeming condescending or cruel. And yet, most of contemporary filmmaking from the African countries that were Portuguese colonies fits that bill to a T. Angolan, Mozambican, Guinean cinema is so fragile and riddled with issues as to exist only with a healthy dollop of pan-European institutional support; few directors have managed to break through or maintain a constant production, and the finished product more often than not tries so hard to fit conventional ideas of what an “African film” should be that it all but fails to establish an identity.

Brazilian-Mozambican veteran Licínio Azevedo’s Virgin Margarida is a good example of the problems: a great premise and the director, cast and crew’s best efforts are simply not enough to make you overlook the many problems with the film, inspired by real-life events that took place in post-colonial Mozambique in the mid-1970s. It deals with the forced relocation of city prostitutes and dancers to “reeducation centers” in the countryside, meant to transform these victims of bourgeois decadence and male patriarchy into whole-hearted daughters of the socialist revolution that would stay home, tend to the children and the crops and populate the home front of new African socialism. Mr. Azevedo had previously directed a documentary about the subject, and used several of the actual stories he recorded to string together his tale of a group of women who are caught in a raid and forcibly taken to one of these camps without a word to their families, in what was presented as a stab at self-improvement but only turned out to substitute hypocritically one patriarchal system for another.

The political aspect of the tale comes out very forcefully in Mr. Azevedo and Jacques Akchoti’s strongly melodramatic screenplay, but nearly everything else in it both undermines and underlines the good intentions. Technically, the film is named for Margarida (Sumeia Maculuva), an illiterate teenager who was caught by mistake and protests her innocence and virginity throughout. But in effect Margarida is but a supporting character in the tale, the actual leads being the martinet camp commander Maria João (Hermelinda Cimela), and the one girl who fights back at the system, sassy streetwalker Rosa (Iva Mugalela). When your own title character is a secondary presence, there’s something wrong; but the script practically gives no back story to its characters, other than brief, perfunctory scenes during the credit sequence (Maria João’s background is more clearly established than that of Rosa or Margarida), and fails to properly establish its timeline (it’s never made clear just for how long the events depicted run). What was meant as a denunciation of a great ill committed towards Mozambican women becomes closer to a service comedy-drama, with the women chafing at being “in the army now”, and the dramatic potential of the tale dissipates quickly.

Technically non-descript, despite some lovely location lensing by Mario Masini, and with the mostly non-professional cast all over the place in terms of performances, Virgin Margarida ends up squandering all it has going for it: the honesty, good will and efforts of all involved stumble badly on its awkwardness and modest budget, the enthusiasm and desire to make this great tale understandable to Western audiences ends up stripping it of its local specifics. It could have been a great film about Africa, it ends up as a forgettable TV movie.

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