Portugal, France, Brazil, Mozambique, 2020

Directed by João Nuno Pinto

With João Nunes Monteiro (Zacarias), João Lagarto (Sergeant Justino), Sebastian Jehkul (the German deserter)

The key information about Zacarias is given when his voice reads the letter he is writing to his parents, well after the film started on the coast of Mozambique he has reached with other soldiers after a long, harsh sea voyage. The very young, thin, and frail man has enlisted to the military, dazzled by the glory of the war and the splendor of the homeland and irked by the narrow-minded nature of parents too quick to stifle his life. To Zacarias, moving to a distant African colony to defend it against the aggression of Germany as the First World War is beginning means cutting off family links and embracing adventure and heroism.

A stunning travel from a gung-ho commitment to a radical questioning: João Nunes Monteiro

The film is the complex narrative of his disillusion. The first stage of Zacarias’ trip in Africa tears apart his illusions about the army but this has nothing to do with bloody, disheartening fighting but with frustration and disappointment. First, a bout of malaria keeps him from moving with his unit and he is forced to join his comrades with a three-week delay, walking through the savanna with the help of two Africans. Their journey is tough, increasingly exhausting and leads to depressing encounters: first a commander in charge of an outpost, glad to loiter with his African woman at a safe distance from skirmishes, holding a deeply cynical and cruel view of the Portuguese colonization; later another commander who first refuses to let Zacarias go and join his unit, then insults him and mocks his ideals and finally gets rid of him. True, flashbacks on the sea travel have introduced the hard-bitten and blunt character of Sergeant Justino, who leads the unit of Zacarias, pointing to a deeply depressing and brutal view of the role of the military in that corner of Africa; but what Zacarias has faced is a deep mistrust of heroism and true contempt for the mission he has so eagerly signed up to. That stokes an anger with tragic consequences: he kills one of the African who accompanies him, prompting the other to leave him alone in the wild.

The second stage of Zacarias’s trip is a nightmarish walk that weakens his body dangerously and threatens to turn him crazy. The encounters he makes are even more challenging and humbling: he is first taken care of by another Portuguese soldier who has deserted and has become insane and later he enters a village made up only of children and women who enslave him and then try to make him part of their community. A white man is manhandled by black woman, a civilized soldier is incorporated in a savage tribe, a European is dominated by Africans: what a reversal of fortune. He manages to flee and he stumbles across another deserter, a far more balanced and healthy fellow but an enemy, as he is German. Zacarias treats him as a prisoner but they eventually get along, the enemy becoming a friend; once again human relationships turn out to be different from what he expected. But the plight of his walk has an even more challenging nature than what human relations impose; it is a deeply existential and traumatic experience. The physical strain, the struggle for life, the climate and the fear ravage the young man’s mind even as the wild environment around him seems keen to reclaim him. This is the graphic, radical story of an individual grabbed by the most primitive reality, nearing a point of no return beyond which his identity would dissolve – and the film reflects this chaos in an awesome style, with stunning, up-close shots on his battered body and fevered face, bold compositions showing lying on the water of a river or the ground of a cave, a jerky editing mixing events and sensations and breaking up chronology and logic while highlighting trance-like moments.

That second part ends with another gruesome murder. Members of Zacarias’s unit readily massacre the German; after all he is an enemy and his fellow countrymen have fought the Portuguese in the most vicious ways, waging a long war the comrades of Zacarias barely won. But when they invite him to give the final blow, he drops the dagger stunned and horrified. This leads to another solitude, but which differs from the episode concluding the first part: this time it is not others who desert him but himself who deserts the esprit de corps. He stands alone, as alienated in the Portuguese barracks as he was in the African village, and his final talk with Sergeant Justino bears witness to his impossibility to assent to the very kind of speech he used to listen on the ship. Letting the wild, in the shape of a lion, devour the sergeant while he chooses to fade in the dark of the night is the radical coda symbolizing the deepest change Zacarias has undergone: he has crossed a threshold and has repudiated the ideas who brought him in the war and even moved beyond cynicisim or fatalism to embrace a quite different, diverging path to humanity.

The end credits roll on old photographs of Portuguese soldiers sent to Africa. “Mosquito”, the second feature of a Portuguese director born in Africa is a bitter vision of the mission those young men have been assigned, a work that has been lasting for decades – the coast of Mozambique was occupied by Portugal’s sailors at the very start of the 16th century – and would last, alas, quite a time, ending in mayhem and misery in the 1970s. The indictment against military colonization is handled by remarkable shifts in genres: the film begins as a period piece dealing with war; but the war genre slowly gives way to a survival tale; then the adventure morphs into a more philosophical and emotional story telling how a young white man loses prejudices and principles while dealing with deeply different, antagonistic people. The sophistication of the montage does not always help: Zacarias’s story can be remarkably confusing. It is the impressively physical performance of the lead actor and the vigor and ambition of the pictures (with a splendid cinematography deftly using the most pristine landscape and bright natural light as well as gorgeous chiaroscuro from warmly glowing light) that makes Zacarias’s walkabout such a surprising, dream-like and riveting tale of awakening which questions the tenets justifying conquest and colonization.

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