Monday, May 8, 2023

Sambizanga (1972): Luso World Cinema Blogathon 2023

"On February 4th, 1961, a group of militants set out from Sambizanga, a working-class district in Luanda, intending to storm the capital's prison. At the same time, they gave the signal for the armed struggle for national independence that has engulfed Angola ever since. But for years before that day, thousands of fighters in the villages and towns had braved the police's reign of terror, patiently paving the way for insurrection and organizing a clandestine network of political movements. And so, on a work site in the midst of the Angolan bush, we find a certain Domingos Xavier..."

These words begin Sambizanga (1972), director Sarah Maldoror's poignant story about Angola's battle to gain independence from Portugal. The film stars Domingos de Oliveira as Domingos Xavier, a construction worker who lives in Sambizanga, a working-class community on the outskirts of Luanda, the capital city of Angola. Suspected of being member of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola or MPLA), Domingos is arrested by Portuguese officials. His devoted wife Maria (Elisa Andrade) goes on a quest to discover what happened to Domingos and find out where he's imprisoned. Her journey gives the viewer an opportunity to explore the landscape and culture of Sambizanga and Luanda. Domingos' story gives us an insight on Angola's severe income and racial inequalities and just what was at stake for Angolans in their rebellion against the Portuguese.

"The rich give in a way that keeps the poor poor and give work to keep the rich rich. If there were no rich, there'd be no poor.... It's the labor of the poor that earns money for the rich and makes the rich richer. But the poor? Always in the same fix."

Sambizanga was based on José Luandino Vieira novel The Real Life of Domingos Xavier published in 1961. The screenplay was a collaboration between novelist Maurice Pons, French director Sarah Maldoror and her husband Mario Pinto de Andrade, an Angolan native and the founder of the MPLA. The film was produced and released during the final years of the Angolan War of Independence and the actors were mostly non-professionals and members of the MPLA. Sambizanga is considered the first feature film (non-documentary) produced by a Portuguese speaking country in Africa. 

If you're looking to expand your horizons with international films especially ones made by female filmmakers, make sure you check out Sambizanga. It's currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and it's part of Criterion's boxed set Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project Vol. 4. The edition they have was restored by The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna. Sambizanga offers a straightforward story of familial strife and incarceration as a platform to further explore the nuances of inequality, Angolan pride and a pivotal moment in the country's recent history. Storywise, it's quite reminiscent of the American film Sounder (1972), released the same year which also tells the story of a wife (Rebecca played by Cicely Tyson) in search of where her husband (Nathan played by Paul Winfield) has been incarcerated. The two films would make a great double-bill and if you're reluctant about trying out Sambizanga use Sounder as a jumping off point.

This review of Sambizanga (1972) is my entry into the 2023 Luso World Cinema Blogathon hosted by Spellbound with Beth Ann and Crítica Retrô. I've had an interest in participating in this blogathon for a while because I'm half-Portuguese and Portuguese is one of three languages I'm fluent in. Furthermore, one of my half-sisters lived in Angola for sometime and I had an Angolan pen pal growing up. I picked Sambizanga because of my personal interest in Angola, the Portuguese language and African cinema. For anyone interested in the Portuguese language, Sambizanga is mostly in Portuguese (Lingala and Kimbundu are also spoken) and the dialogue is quite easy to follow which makes it perfect for language learning or improving fluency.

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