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Review: Hidden Era


- Berlin-based Colombian filmmaker Carlos Vargas’s portrait of a Rastafarian Mozambican artist shows promise in subject but ultimately feels incomplete

Review: Hidden Era
Isaac Tivane/Phambi and Ixon Tivane in Hidden Era

After producing and lensing Edmundo Bejarano’s Melody of Love, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Berlin-based Colombian filmmaker Carlos Vargas brings his debut film, Hidden Era [+see also:
interview: Carlos Vargas
film profile
, to the same strand of the festival. Maputo-based Rastafarian artist and painter Isaac Tivane, aka Phambi, plays a slightly fictionalised version of himself who must balance his artistic endeavours with ensuring a fulfilling upbringing for his son (Ixon Tivane). The film had its world premiere in the Viewpoints section – the gathering’s strand for “bold original visions and innovative perspectives”.

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With Vargas co-scripting, Phambi spends much of his time painting nude portraits of his muses, Paula and Ednora (Paula and Ednora Matlombe), who enjoy the artist’s company but also disagree with his Rastafarian adherence: specifically, to the enforcement of patriarchal norms. The women begin to take part in classes and protests in Maputo in a show of feminist solidarity, carving out their own paths. Simultaneously, Phambi tries to sell paintings to different customers around the city, having to personally show the paintings to potential buyers in order to earn enough money for Ixon’s school. “To be an art model is to vindicate the narrative in every stroke and pose,” say Paula and Ednora, who work to convince Phambi to change his perspective.

The film opens with a compelling image of just how close to Phambi we might get: a shot of the artist sitting calmly, alone, in the seat of a Ferris wheel, enjoying the ride. But just from this depiction of the protagonist’s life, it’s hard to get a sense of what Rastafarianism is to him or others in the Maputo landscape. This detracts from the movie’s admirable intention to highlight a lesser-seen community dedicated to an Afrocentric movement – and Phambi is clearly extraordinarily talented. Vargas’s centring of Phambi thus becomes an interesting, if sometimes confusing, choice because of his inaccessibility as a character. As Paula and Ednora put it, he sees “women as objects”, and so the filmmaker also leans into their development as feminist women beyond Phambi’s objectification, ultimately making them more interesting subjects-cum-characters than the artist himself.

With its anticlimactic and often observational style coupled with the fictionalisation of the actors’ personal lives, Hidden Era has such a pseudo-documentary feel that it easily lands in docuhybrid territory. Vargas, who not only co-wrote and directed, but also did the cinematography, grading and editing, dwells mainly in loosely staged wide and medium shots for conversations between his characters, which creates a distance between them and the audience. At times, this choice makes the film feel amateur-ish, in addition to a shot that is artificially sped up and one that is mirrored to serve continuity.

The visuals are seemingly hardly colour-graded at all – maybe it’s intended as a certain rawness or realness emanating from Phambi’s life, but it comes off, instead, as a sense of incompleteness. Hidden Era’s lack of narrative throughline never becomes an issue – perhaps reflecting a Rastafarian sensibility, but it’s difficult to tell – but its failure to deliver compelling visuals either leaves a disappointing taste by the end.

Hidden Era is a Colombian-German-Mozambican co-production by the filmmaker himself for Berlin-based Kopperkollektive GmbH, which is also handling the international sales.

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