NELIO'S STORY/COMMEDIA INFANTIL (1997, Mozambique/Sweden, 92 min.), directed by Solveig Nordlund; screenplay by Tommy Karlmark from the novel Commedia Infantil by Henning Mankell and the play Meninos de Ninguém by Mutumbela Gogo; cinematography by Lisa Hagstrand; music by Johan Zachriason; with Sérgio Titos (Nelio), Joáo Manja (José), Joaquina Odete (Deolinda), Jaime Júlio (Bomba), Francisco Chilenque (Nascimento), Avelino Manliça (Mandloça), André Ruco (Tristeza), Adelino Branquinho (Senhor Castigo), Lilia Mompté (Dona Esmeralda), Lucrécia Paco (Maria). In Portuguese and Mozambican with English subtitles.
A cool breeze blew past me, and I'm sure it was Nélio's spirit, asking me to pass on his story. Not because he was afraid of being forgotten, but because he wanted us to remember who we are and the powers we have. We all have secret strengths which we don't know exist--but they do exist, in you . . . and you . . . and you . . . and you . . .
Nélio's Story is a cyclical film and a film about cycles--the cycles of death and life, birth and rebirth, war and reprieve from war, revenge and healing, telling a story and being a story.
The film opens at night with a baker staring vacantly into a blazing hearth. We hear his thoughts: "I'm not a pessimist, but these times are bad. Every day the war creeps closer." In fact, the war will come to him very quickly, though not in the way that he expected. He hears gunfire and rushes down to the theater that shares the building in which the bakery is located, and discovers Nélio, one of the many street kids who roam the neighborhood, lying on the floor of the stage with a bullet in his abdomen. The child insists that José, the baker, take him up to the roof of the building, where he can set free his spirit. His will not be a quick death, however; before he departs from this world he must pass on his story toJosé. His life cannot end before his story ends.
And so we are taken back to Nélio's village (the film will henceforth alternate between flashbacks to his story and returns to the "present"), where terror arrives in the middle of the night in the form of a gang of rebels (whose politics and purpose will remain unknown in this film). They destroy the village and villagers, allowing only a few to live so that they can be impressed into service. Nélio's mother cries out to him to hide himself; that will be the last time he will see her alive in this world. He does hide, but he cannot escape. He is captured and led away to a rebel training camp by the young rebels (some barely older than he) who brutalize their captives both physically and psychologically. When Nélio is ordered to shoot his own brother, however, he refuses, turning the gun instead on the rebel leader. He shoots, and then manages miraculously to make his escape. The narration gives us a clue to the reason for his success: There are moments in life when you simply are what you do. At that moment, Nélio was just legs that ran and arms that that had just killed a man. Nothing else. The child survives, but for the rest of the film he will be living, as it were, on borrowed time, in a sense inhabiting a world somewhere between that of the living and that of the dead.
Nélio eventually makes his way to the city, aided by an old woman who turns out to be the great Lizard Woman ("Even priests and kings asked her advice when times were bad"); she puts him aboard a sailboat, where he will give up control over his destiny and simply follow the wind and the river current. When he finally comes ashore, he is met by the dwarf Yabu Batu, who leads him to town, then disappears. In town, Nélio drifts into the service of the hustler Senhor Castigo, which leads him to the comaraderie of a little gang of street kids. Castigo will also unwittingly reveal to Nélio the fact that he now has some very special powers. (Were these powers given to him by the Lizard Woman and Yabu Batu, or were those two magical beings revealed to him because of powers that he already held? The film will not say.) He befriends Deolinda, a lonely albino girl who is also something of a survivor and has powers of her own. As a healer and a seer, Nélio will acquire a very special position within the little gang, and within
the larger community of the impoverished neighborhood. But these powers cannot save him from his own past, nor would he want them to.
This film does a fine job of showing us a world in ruins, a kind of post-apocalyptic world awaiting the next wave of barbarism, its inhabitants adrift and struggling for survival. The street kids are convincingly and endearingly portrayed by a group of non-professionals (whom the director recruited off the streets), young Sérgio Titos as Nélio in particular. On a certain level this film is a plea for understanding for these children and the kind of support needed to help them and their country.
But this is ultimately not merely a film of social analysis. Nelio's Story is certainly rooted in its time and place, but it also manages to create a sense of timeless, traditional African spirituality. It has a powerfully tender, poetic quality to it. Each of the children in the gang has a dream--of living in a house, or rediscovering lost parents, or a decent meal, or a visit to the island of the dead. José the baker too has a dream--of becoming an actor (literally and figuratively), and perhaps winning the attention of the beautiful actress Maria. We sense that little Nélio has a double-dream : to rejoin his family in death, and to use his story to heal, to induce others to pursue their dreams. In achieving the former, he will accomplish the latter; by knowing that he will accomplish the latter, he can embrace the former.
The film can then end, much as it began. But as the baker stares once again into his hearth, something has changed, a breeze has brushed by us, a gift has been (and will continue to be) given. Or rather, many gifts--for those in the film and for you . . . and you . . . and . . .
* * *
To call Nélio's Story an African film is not without problems. While its characters, its actors, and its setting are undoubtedly Mozambican, the creators of this film are by birth European. However, most viewers will concur that there is little of Hollywood or Western stereotyping and condescension in this film, which manages to feel African in a number of ways.
The film is based on a novel by a Swede, Henning Mankell (b. 1948), a writer very popular in his native Sweden and around the world for his detective fiction, particularly his Kurt Wallander series of mysteries. These novels, according to the Guardian book reviews, reveal "a once-utopian society starting to rip with the stresses of inequality, immigration, racism and amoral violence. The series' serial killers are not only savagely brutal, but spectres of social injustice: vengeful women and children, the excluded and the lonely." At the same time, Mankell has a very different side to him. For more than thirty years he has lived in Maputo, Mozambique, where he directs the Teatro Avenida (the theatrical troupe that works in the theater that we see in the film). He considers the theater--and now film--to be a vital means of education and exploration for people in a country whose population is still largely illiterate due to the ravages of colonialism and its aftermath.
The director, Solveig Nordlund, is also from Sweden, and is also both prolific and very diverse in her interests. Born in Stockholm in 1943, she has been making documentaries and feature films since 1975, much of the time in Portugal. She has immersed herself in a variety of subjects, issues, and settings, and has also worked as a film editor and scriptwriter. Her 1993 film Tomorrow Mario (on which she again collaborated with screenwriter Tommy Karlmark) prefigures Nelio's Story in many ways: it tells the story of a young beggar/hustler/street kid on the tourist island of Madeira. Her most recent film is Low Flying Aircraft (2001), an adaptation of a novel by the science fiction writer J.G. Ballard. Nordlund also spends much of her time working in theater in Sweden in Portugal. Nordlund's skill in working with actors (professional and non-professional), her experience as a documentary filmmaker, and her fluency in Portuguese are all evident in Nelio's Story, her 30th film, which has gone on to win her a number of awards at international festivals .
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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