QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM THE RED SEA
This highly cryptic and hypnotic Angolan movie is wacky as its title suggests. Nothing is straightforward in this bizarre cinematic experiment. The story is told in non-linear fashion: chapter 1 , chapter 2, prologue and chapter 3 (in this precise order). Our narrative more or less evolves around a Chinese merchant in the country’s capital Luanda. He sells glow-in-the-dark, plastic statues of Our Lady. The item quickly becomes a bestseller amongst devoted locals. The tacky religious artefact will impact the lives of various people, all seeking some sort of redemption.
A middle-aged woman called Domingas (Claudia Pucuta) is coming to terms with the death of her daughter Mariana, while also caring for her ailing husband Bessa (David Caracol). Mariana still visits her mother in her dreams. The despondent woman resorts to an African exorcism ritual in order to rid herself of Mariana’s ghost, in a country where religious syncretism is prevalent. There could also be absolution in water: a healer suggests that she installs a bathroom shower, but it is through a hole in the roof that she will achieve cleansing. Pucuta delivers the film’s strongest performance, her strong facial features and expression conveying a faltering sense of determination. The prologue reveals that Domingas and her husband were once influential people.
Meanwhile, a barber sucks the energy from Our Lady in order to fulfil his own personal ambitions. He will achieve his aim through charlatanism. And a teenager called Zoyo (Willi Ribeiro) seeks his missing dog on the chaotic streets of the Angolan capital. His encounter with the plastic statues could bring closure to this messy yet tantalising story. The movie climaxes in the prologue, when the most important characters meet in a stadium convention. They have a sumptuous dinner and deliver passionate speeches to an audience of shirts and trousers hanging on a clothesline, occupying the audience seats. A duel between faith and reason takes place. Between authoritarianism and freedom. Between colonialism and independence. Between charlatanism and honesty. Angola is a very fragile democracy still struggling with the legacy of a very recent independence struggle (1975) and a traumatising civil war (1975-2002). Once single political party, the MPLA, ruled the nation between 1975 and 1991. The Party chairman Joao Lourenco is currently the president of Angola. The country’s political establishment is indeed as creepy as the dinner in the stadium. And the people of Angola hold as much sway as the lifeless garments.
The Chinese shop owner observes the action from a distance, occasionally interacting with his clients and throwing in his fortune cookie knowledge: “a dog barks out of fear, not bravery” and “it’s much easier to get lost when you think you know the ways”. He is the 21st century coloniser ready to take over the fractious vulnerable nation. He could offer the Angolan people salvation with his religious statues. But Our lady isn’t black. Is it time perhaps we blackface the mother of Jesus? Filmmaker Ery Claver, who also penned the movie script, has a an ingenious solution.
This enigmatic film is very enjoyable to watch, if at times barely decipherable. The narrative threads barely connect. Yet the jittery and blurry camera, the fluorescent lights and the eerie sci-fi score underpin the arc with poetic liberties. The story feels detached from reality, almost supernatural. A hypnotic viewing experience.
Our Lady of the Chinese Shop is in the Official Competition of the 2nd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year in Locarno, where it earned mostly positive reviews. A real crowd-pleaser for festivals-goers and cinephile with an acquired taste (myself included in both categories). But perhaps a little too elliptical for a broader audience. I would hazard a guess, however, that this debutant Angolan filmmaker has a bright future ahead.