Portugal has a large imperial heritage and colonial past, and the country take enormous pride in being the first one to sail around the globe and to impose their language and religion to millions of natives. Hugo Vieira da Silva’s adaptation of the titular Joseph Conrad story is a multi-layered exercise of mimicry where ghosts of the past take over new bodies and garments. Set in the ivory-trading post on the Congo, two Portuguese colonial officials play the role of empowered men who are unable to make their land prosper. “Progress” may refer to the words in the Brazilian flag “Order and Progress”, Portugal’s largest former colony.
The shiny white Portuguese uniforms distinguish them as foreign bodies in the jungle, nicknamed mundele (ghosts) by the locals. They are supposed to get trade flowing again following the death of the former station chief. Yet the hired workers make little effort to find new reserves. While the carefree Sant’Anna seeks amusement in alcohol, music and the natives, his superior João de Mattos is struck down by malaria. The isolation in the jungle gradually fan the flames of mistrust and delusion. The film takes place in an unspecified time somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Understanding the film narrative requires some knowledge of Portuguese history. The Black characters speak Portuguese as well as their native language. D. Sebastião, for instance, the acclaimed king immortalised by the country’s greatest poet Luís de Camões in his book ‘Os Lusíadas’, appears as a Black leader who betrays his people by trading slaves for ivory.
There are also similarities with Miguel de Cervantes’s classic ‘Don Quixote’. Sant’anna stands for Sancho Panza, while João de Mattos is a Portuguese Quixote. In conclusion, the Imperialistic drive to conquer and enrich was reduced to a utopia, based on decisions made by drunkards and lascivious white men.
Black African religious rituals of Yoruba origins impose a new order and lifestyle on the Portuguese. Shamans cure jungle diseases, and mainstream science and medicine are mostly powerless in this magic environment.
An Outpost of Progress has similarities with Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982). Fitzcarraldo is obsessed with building an opera house in his town, and he needs to kill someone in the rubber business in order to achieve this. He then hatches an elaborate plan that calls for a particularly impressive feat: bringing a massive boat over a mountain with the help of a band of natives. In Werner’s feature men lose their fight against nature. The jungle swallows them and the boat is taken by monkeys. In Vieira’s movie, the two Portuguese officials cannot even decide on a plan. João de Mattos kills his partner in order to save on his sugar and coffee reserves. Ironically, these were Brazil’s largest exports for centuries.
Sophisticated visual effects and fascinating images mesmerised the audience in Berlin. Suddenly, An Outpost of Progress becomes a silent movie and João de Mattos and Sant’Anna turn into Laurel and Hardy. They are genius and pathetic at the same time, just like the Portuguese conquistadores.
An Outpost of Progress is part of the Forum selection in the 66th Berlinale. DMovies is live right now at the event with two journalists.