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BERLIN 2019 Forum

Review: Serpentarius

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- BERLIN 2019: The debut feature by Carlos Conceição mirrors periods in an unnamed country’s history by means of one man’s journey through an exuberant variety of landscapes and film genres

Review: Serpentarius
João Arrais in Serpentarius

A melancholic, retro sci-fi that slides into a plethora of other genres, while also dealing with an unnamed country’s history, Serpentarius [+see also:
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, the debut feature by Carlos Conceição, celebrated its world premiere in the Forum section of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival (7-17 February). Conceição was born in Africa and left for Europe in his teens, while his mother stayed behind, the opening titles disclose. She told him that she wanted to adopt a bird that would live for 150 years, but only if he would take care of it when she died.

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What follows may very well be the depiction of a journey undertaken in order to find out her reasons for remaining in Africa, or a rendering of what such a bird could see should it indeed still be alive on the African continent in 150 years’ time. As a young man (João Arrais) lands on what can only be assumed to be African territory, a female voice(-over) requests that he find her. His journey through a post-apocalyptic African landscape thus begins, and mere fragments of a narrative start to be pieced together. In the film’s sci-fi scenario, the mother has passed away in a catastrophic event, and the bird has indeed outlived her. On his quest to retrieve it, the young man we initially see wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of retro-cum-futuristic sunglasses will become, in turn, a Portuguese colonialist sporting a ruff, a playful cowboy and an astronaut in a lo-fi, retro spaceship.

For its entire duration, Serpentarius (shot, scripted, edited and narrated by the Angola-born Portuguese director himself) remains visually compelling, as the changes in scenery are accompanied by shifts in the size and texture of the images. Grainy, deep-orange desert landscapes enclosed in a square, analogue-like frame give way to crystal-clear, full-screen, digital images of galactic elements superimposed on the protagonist’s upside-down head. A fast-cut sequence splices together archival material ranging from vintage porn trailers to footage of political speeches.

It is through the fleeting footage of one of these speeches that the film offers one of its few clues regarding the country in which the quest takes place. The man we briefly see speaking is António Agostinho Neto, captured proclaiming the independence of Angola in 1975. Hence the post-apocalyptic territory that the protagonist wanders through can be understood to be the devastated landscape left behind by the Angolan Civil War, which commenced after the nation’s proclamation of independence. Leaving the country and its “disease” unnamed, the movie also works as a more general observation of African history, or even simply of history itself.

Sci-fi in story, melancholic in tone and, for most of the time, retro-futuristic in look, Serpentarius manages to keep its multitude of seemingly incompatible elements well blended together not only through the motif of the journey, but also by means of the voice-over narration, which sets the general tone of the film. Deeply melancholic in both timbre and content, the thoughts it renders range from colonialism to the disappearance of the feeling of “longing” (the untranslatable Portuguese word saudade) in the future.

Serpentarius embeds a plethora of genres and sub-genres – it is briefly ethnographic, autobiographical, a costume drama and a western, but for the most part, a sci-fi experimental essay – in its compelling contemplation of a territory’s past and present, and maybe even its future. Its hotchpotch of various narrative and stylistic surprises remains justified at all times, and it deftly steers clear of turning into a mere showcase for cinematic trickery.

The film was produced by Mirabilis (Carlos Conceição, António Gonçalves and Margarida Ventura), and Agência - Portuguese Short Film Agency is handling its world sales.

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