DMovies - Your platform for thought-provoking cinema
Very sad disease kills plantation labourers in Africa, in this extremely sombre allegory of Portuguese colonialism - from the Crystal Globe Competition of the 58th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival


It is the early 20th century. Slavery has been long abolished across the entire planet, bar a few late aberrations. Yet slave-like practices are still widespread. A Portuguese plantation owner lures roughly 100 Mozambicans to his farm on a remote island, under the promise of a wealth and opportunities. Upon arrival, they work in conditions analogue to slavery. Due to contractual obligations, they are not allowed to return to their home. They could neither read nor sign the document that binds them to the new land; the agreement was sealed with a mere thumbprint. They are devastated, physically and spiritually. And so they begin to die. As our 127-minute begin, we are informed that roughly half of them have already passed away.

Death is their natural choice because it is the only way of returning home. Their faith establishes that – while their body might remain afar – their immortal soul is guaranteed to be reunited with their loved ones, and in the land where they were born. The illness that kills them in called “Banzo”. In other words, they die of of sadness, of nostalgia, or – more accurately – of “saudades” (the Portuguese word used in order to describe a deep longing, and the language’s most beautiful and widely recognised emblem). There is a mountain that they climb in order to die, named Bombaim, immediately recalling Shōhei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (1983). The Portuguese masters have little time for empathy. They wish to keep the Africans purely for financial reasons. The only exception is the principled white doctor Afonso Paiva (Carlotto Cotta), who prioritises their wellbeing ahead of pecuniary interests. He recommends repatriation, an expensive option which the wealthy land owners refuse to consider.

Black overseers work for the wealthy family. Their duty is to ensure that the workforce remains loyal and productive, a historical role that dates back to the 17th century. They become willing accomplices of the oppressor in order to enjoy certain privileges. Black housemaid Guilhermina too receives a treatment superior to the farm labourers because she is inside the family home. Her bosses gives her a very peculiar gift: a studio photograph against a background of painted mountains. “See, how good you look in Switzerland”, they tell the unfazed woman (in what’s perhaps the film’s only attempt at humour). Alphonse (Hoji Fortuna) is the only black character to enjoy a high social status, and that’s thanks to his late master leaving him his entire estate. His allegiance is split: he grew up and works with the whites, yet empathises with the hapless blacks.

Portuguese filmmaker Margarida Cardoso creates a sombre allegory of colonialism. The year is 1907, yet the practices are hundreds of years old. The Portuguese run their plantations just as they as they did in the 1700s, and the treatment of the blacks has barely evolved. It’s only the oppression tactics that have become more sophisticated. In fact, Portugal retained nearly all of its African colonies well into the 1970s.

This is a movie infused with sadness on every level. Entirely filmed on the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, Banzo successfully takes viewers back in time to a place where Africans were lesser humans beings. Even the weather is dark and gloomy, despite this being a tropical location more commonly associated with abundant sun. Blacks should remain “sad and silent”, we are reliably told.

There is no shortage of anti-colonial narratives coming from Europe, yet there is a shortage of such films coming from subsaharan Africa. Banzo is no exception. This co-production of three European countries looks at Africa through thick colonial glasses, however good the intentions. The black people are devoid of their names, identities and culture. This is particularly true in the case of a free, unidentified tribe living in the jungle, which the colonisers often come across. There is barely any insight into their rituals, their beliefs, their language. These people are throughly exoticised. Cardoso ends up falling in the trap she set out to avoid. Instead of challenging the false notion that blacks are indeed sad and lonely, she ends up reinforcing it.

Banzo is in the Crystal Globe Competition of the 58th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 07-07-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

DMovies Poll

Are the Oscars dirty enough for DMovies?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Most Read

Forget Friday the 13th, Paranormal Activity and the [Read More...]
Just a few years back, finding a film [Read More...]
A lot of British people would rather forget [Read More...]
Sexual diversity is at the very heart of [Read More...]
Pigs might fly. And so Brexit might happen. [Read More...]
Films quotes are very powerful not just because [Read More...]

Read More

Our dirty questions to Ziad and Christine


Victoria Luxford - 24-07-2024

Victoria Luzford interviews Ziad H. Hamzeh and Christine Handy, the director and original writer/ exec producer of Hello Beautiful, an emotionally compelling drama about successful model, her mother, and a life-changing diagnosis [Read More...]

One city, one planet, many films


Marina Hillquist - 23-07-2024

Marina Hillquist investigates the environmental impact of film production, and reveals how Gainesville (a city in Florida, United States) is leading the way [Read More...]

The cinematic evolution of videogames


Tania Dickson - 22-07-2024

Tania Dickson looks back at the fairly young history of video games and unearths some uncanny similarities and affinities with the seventh art [Read More...]