CITY PRESS REVIEW: A superb, gritty, mystical, African love story

2016-11-06 06:00

Train of Salt and Sugar (Mozambique)

Director: Licínio Azevedo

Starring: Melanie de Vales Rafael, Matamba Joaquim, Thiago Justino, António Nipita

The central character in Train of Salt and Sugar, a gritty 1980s civil war romance, is a lumbering beast of a train on its way from Mozambique to Malawi. Many of the passengers are women trading salt for sugar to sell in Mozambique, where it is scarce. Along with the train drivers and the military guard, they are a community that must sleep with one eye open, under constant threat of attack.

“War is like gnawing the bush,” says a character in this bitterly real anti-war romance (between a nurse and a military lieutenant) peppered with symbolism, daylight mysticism (a shamanic soldier leader) and shards of poetry. It also masquerades as a Western. It sounds like a lot of elements to combine and it may start off slowly, but Brazilian-born Licínio Azevedo delivers a masterful film, my favourite at the inaugural Joburg Film Festival.

Women are placed at the centre of the narrative in that rare thing, an African love story on the big screen.

It is easy to read into the film a colonial gaze, but it helps that Azevedo has lived in Mozambique since independence, arriving to document post-colonial life for the National Institute of Cinema. He rode this train frequently during the war, interviewing passengers.

His referencing of the Western is to critique Hollywood’s overblown style, as is his refusal to drench the film in an emotive score. Instead, the drone-like rumbling of the train paints the mood, sounding almost like the sea. There is a boat on the train, part of the cargo, casting reference to Moby Dick and the hunting of a nemesis, and, to me, African immigrants crossing the ocean. It’s not the only similarity I saw to a modern African gem like Moussa Touré’s La Pirogue.

The film will be screened at The Labia in Cape Town and The Bioscope in Joburg from November 11 for two weeks.

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