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85 minutes, 1996, Madagascar Director: Raymond Rajaonarivelo in French and Malagasy with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
This film is one of the most magical to come out of Africa--hardly surprising since Madagascar is unlike anywhere else on earth.
Raymond Rajaonarivelo follows his epic first film on the Malagasy liberation struggle, Taba Taba, with a very different, poetic film exploring the relationship between traditional and modern concepts of human freedom. He writes: "In French magie and image are made from the same letters... In this film, there will be Magic as long as man is dependent on mysterious forces that overwhelm him, and Image when man has acquired enough power over space, time, and himself to no longer be afraid of his life."
As the title suggests, Rajaonarivelo frames his film around three visual symbols or leit motifs, sky, sea and, by implication, the land marooned between them or life between birth and death. Set among the island's high mesas, all the major characters dream of escaping this parched interior to return to the oceanic mother, Rano Masina or "sacred water" in Malagasy. Rajaonarivelo characterizes life in the arid highlands, whether in the superstitious village or the corrupt city, as unremittingly predatory. A recurrent dream of a gently breaking surf turning into pounding cattle hooves symbolizes the human tension between infinite and earthbound.
Destiny, or vintana, plays a key role in the belief system of the Merina people of these high plateaus. The day and month of a child's birth are believed to determine its fate; a child born during a solar eclipse, a liminal time when sun and moon are at war, is believed to possess especially destructive powers. Tradition demands that its father must place it in a cattle pen where it will be trampled to death.
The hero of this film is such a child; his mother died in childbirth but he is rescued from his fate by a young, childless woman and named Kapila, "the lame one," because of an injury he suffered in the corral. He grows into a kind but frightened young man, in effect, a stowaway in life, who supposedly can only bring evil on those around him. His adoptive mother weaves the shrouds in which the Malagasy bury, exhume and then rebury their ancestors and Kapila wears one until his ultimate liberation.
Parallel to his protective adopted mother, Kapila encounters at key moments a wrathful, blind old woman, who taunts him that he cannot avoid his destructive destiny and gives him a staff of vengeance. She may be a bilo, a dead spirit possessing Kapila's body, or the ghost of one of his ancestors (perhaps his dead mother) or just a mpaamosavy or sorceress. No doubt, she also represents a repressed part of Kapila's psyche, a shadow self, enraged that society has stigmatized him as the source of calamity.
As in any quest narrative, Kapila must embark on a journey to discover his true identity and purpose in life. Rajaonarivelo's crippled hero has resonances with other myths, most obviously Sundjata and Oedipus. Kapila leaves his mother and flies on the wings of a hawk over a vast wasteland to his natal village. There he confronts his father, The Poet, a madman who believes he can fly away from human cruelty and his own guilt. He tells his son: "Nature is as beautiful as a woman yet she has something against us; she inhabits us and forces us to do things we find revolting. Your powers too are only an instrument of her will."
The villagers, led by a hypocritical Christian priest and a traditional diviner, hunt Kapila like an animal. He survives again through the love of another young woman, Fara, a beautiful, fair-skinned métisse, an outsider marked by difference like himself. Disgusted with the cycle of hate, Kapila climbs the mountain of the ancestors, of tradition, and throws away the sorceress' cane, the source of his magical powers. This unintentionally unleashes a purifying deluge which destroys the village.
In thus repudiating his destiny Kapila has ironically fulfilled it. His and Fara's love and commitment to living literally and symbolically annihilate the old cycle of destiny; the villagers by clinging to their belief in destiny insure that it comes true. In the closing sequence reprising the opening, Kapila's father again tries to kill his son by stampeding the cattle, but when they see Kapila embracing Fara they turn upon his father trampling him to death. As he wished, he is cremated in the same corral where Kapila was wounded, freed at last to rejoin the wind and the stars.
In the film's final shot, Kapila and a visibly pregnant Fara at last stand on the shore, the threshold between land and water and between destiny and desire, the place where the stars and the sea meet. Kapila has paradoxically discovered his own identity only by rejecting his connections with his past - his adoptive mother, his father, even his ancestral homeland. His destiny has, in a sense, been to break free of destiny. He and Fara, outsiders joined by love not custom, have given birth to a new world governed not by magic and fate but by love and imagination.