IndieLisboa 2024 review: Banzo (Margarida Cardoso)

“For Cardoso, the film is about the banalization of evil rather than its Arendt-ian banality, built upon a belief that cinema can prompt reflection and maybe hold the power for change.”

In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to cross what we now know as the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Upon this “discovery,” he baptized it as the Cape of Storms in reference to what his crew suffered, sailing through tempests in their attempt to set a maritime route from Portugal to India. The weather was so hostile that, when immortalizing Dias’ travels in the epic poem Os Lusíadas, Camões gave nature’s uproar a mythic shape, that of a monstrous titan called Adamastor. In the context of such legendary inclement weather, one might wonder how the Cape came to be called Good Hope. It was King John II who gave it the name, a celebration of what its crossing promised amid the country’s expansionist surge, a way to Asia that needn’t go through the cross-continental silk roads of yore. For all the poetry implied in its history, Good Hope is a mercenary epithet that rethinks the world around European imperial interests. That’s still its name today, and Portuguese children are still taught the feats of Dias and Camões’ paean to the Age of Discovery in heroic stylings. Whether or not that’s the institutional intention, it creates a sense of nostalgia for a past that never was, idealized into the stuff of legend rather than a branching of the Portuguese colonial project along with its destructive force.

While Margarida Cardoso’s latest feature, Banzo, isn’t set in the Cape of Good Hope, it’s in explicit dialogue with that history. Indeed, its principal setting is a cocoa plantation on the island of Príncipe, another spoil of Portuguese expansion, whose owners have named it Good Hope in honor of those Age of Discovery tales. Yet, hope is something that the land lacks, a deadened environment that the audience explores through the eyes of Afonso, a doctor coming from Congo circa 1907, searching for a more civilized colonial outpost. It’s not him the audience first meets, however, but the gaze of a Black man on a ship bound for Príncipe. His name is Murata, the same as a Japanese rifle that aided Japanese imperialism, and he stares at the roiling water. He also seems hypnotized by the towering mountain on the horizon. Through an ominous soundscape, Cardoso suggests a primordial anger coming from the earth, some faraway roar reverberating within the man. Not long after, he’s dead, fallen before the ship ever reached its destination. According to nautical superstition, this fate bears a fatalistic meaning – the person was already dead when they embarked.

That notion permeates the film, molding it into a ghost story where the dead walk among the living, hearts beating and minds lost to the beyond. But maybe that’s preferable to living in the reality Banzo sets for its characters. Through Cardoso’s camera, the Good Hope plantation is a godforsaken land, gripped by constant storms, rain every day with the wind howling on top of it. The surrounding forest is a consuming entity, alive with a devouring hunger that eats and guards those who’ve gone into its depths. A community started by runaway slaves is said to exist within. They watch but aren’t seen, somewhat like the audience who observes the nightmare on screen. Once again, it is better to be an outside observer than inside the hell of Good Hope, where new workers arrive every month from other colonies in Portuguese Africa. Though the slave trade has been formally forbidden, these servants are indentured into their position, trafficked to do what amounts to forced labor. To their masters, they are slaves by another name, and there are many of them wasting away on Príncipe. The influx must be constant, for they don’t last, victims of the poor conditions or a new malady that has overtaken the lot – Banzo.

The term comes from further back in the colonial past, a time when slavery was practiced in the open, not needing to hide beneath bureaucratic obfuscations. Then, the enslaved people were said to suffer from Banzo, the nostalgia of the shackled who long to return home. Lost in their yearning, they would refuse to eat, refuse to live. In extremes, these sick folk would resort to suicide, hanging themselves from the trees or throwing themselves into the waves. Though maybe that latter was an attempt at escape. They swim to nowhere and perish in the Atlantic like so many Black people who found themselves in ships bound for the New World. Those still led to the cocoa fields must wear metal muzzles from time immemorial, meant to stop them from eating the ground and poisoning themselves with it. The obscene devices make anyone who looks upon the workers keenly aware of how perverse the situation is. When the pretense of civilization washes away, even the white people look unsure of what to do. Still, they persevere, for there’s no stopping the colonial project. Those who can’t work are kept alive in the plantation’s hospital wards, force-fed because their demise would be uncomfortable for accounting purposes. Under the Portuguese domain, these moribund people aren’t allowed death on their own terms, forced to survive because the white man’s financial order demands it.

Facing such outward ignobility, the powers that be work to propagate images of a different version of reality. The empire must pretend it all makes sense, leading colonizers to make up lies they tell themselves, self-delusion in the name of survival. So, photographs emerge as a leitmotiv in Cardoso’s anti-colonial lament, starting with scenes of staged labor where the workers playact an idealized vision of their lives. It’s propaganda, just as false as the Swiss Alps painted backdrops in the photographer’s portrait studio. The lady of the plantation is especially fond of the theatrical devices, accruing artifacts of a false idyll to show off when she gets back to Lisbon. While her subalterns live in the past, she already considers herself back in Portugal, her present life nothing more than the memory of tomorrow. Yes, in Lisbon, she’ll look back fondly, believing the photographic lies she orchestrated in Good Hope were true after all. The man behind the camera is Alphonse, one of the few free Black men on the island, who spends his time recording the white fantasy of Black people happy to be subjugated. Played by Hoji Fortuna, he is the film’s most fascinating character, clear-eyed and aware that history is a written story, whereas Carloto Cotta’s Afonso is perpetually dumbfounded by what he finds on this island Purgatory. It’s easy to see why Cardoso chose to use the latter as her guide, the conduit of the audience’s discovery. But evident reasoning doesn’t justify everything.

A white POV dominates Banzo, pushing non-white bodies into a mysterious other. It’s not a dynamic the director approaches lightly, problematizing it as the film unfolds and forcing the spectator to reflect on the limits of a given perspective. Still, trapped in their suicidal disorder, unable to communicate and often lost in translation, the workers are exoticized into alien beings that the camera can’t see into. It gets stuck on the surface misery and becomes complicit in their depersonalization. The othering is the point, but how far can the director’s approach go without contradicting the ethos of the very project she’s conceived? This tension remains unresolved to the very end and detracts from the greatness Cardoso achieves elsewhere. Mostly, it distracts the viewer from the cinematic depiction of a specific island mood, so thick and pervasive it seems to seep out of the screen to suffocate the viewer. Consider the rhapsodies of fog and smoke across the screen, the deep staging with digital crispness and Caravaggio shadows. Consider the color story, so suffused in rot that even the warm flame manifests like a splotch of cirrhosis yellow, just another shade of infection. Like horror in sotto voce, Banzo whispers an insinuation of cosmic evil in human terms, Adamastor turned into a Lovecraftian ambiance. It’s an ill stretching past the narrative frame and deep into a history stained with the blood, sweat, and tears of countless brutalized souls.

The cumulative effect of dread and sorrow is insidious, burying itself in the spectator and down to the bone. As one leaves the film behind, that hold remains like some dark haunting, and because of that you can’t dismiss Banzo, perspective imbalances and all. For Cardoso, the film is about the banalization of evil rather than its Arendt-ian banality, built upon a belief that cinema can prompt reflection and maybe hold the power for change. It’s a naïve thought but a necessary one, especially if the artist intends to create such moving picture monuments to combat Portugal’s colonial nostalgia – so different from the mind virus that spreads through Good Hope’s workers. Furthermore, in a country where it’s not easy to make cinema, any work that reaches the silver screen is a small miracle in itself. Such is the inglorious reality of making cinema in Portugal, turning Banzo‘s existence and sheer ambition into a feat worthy of applause, even as one might question some of the film’s central strategies.