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97 Minutes, 2005, Angola Director: Zézé Gamboa, Producer: Fernando Vendrell, Screenwriter: Carla Baptista In Portuguese with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
Winner, Grand Prize, World Dramatic Competition 2005 Sundance Film Festival
The Hero (O Herói) is the story of Angola, a nation torn apart by forty years of uninterrupted war, and now trying imperfectly but courageously to piece itself back together. It is also the story of a city, Luanda, like so many in the Third World, trying to absorb the millions of people displaced by civil strife and global economic change. After a thirteen year national liberation struggle against the Portuguese colonialists ended with independence in 1975, Angola plunged immediately into a brutal civil war. The national MPLA government, backed initially by Cuba and the Soviet Union, and the UNITA rebels, supported by the U.S. and the South African apartheid regime, remained locked in conflict until 2003, long after the end of the Cold War itself.
Zézé Gamboa, director of the film, has stated that he considers himself in the camp of African filmmakers who see their work as contributing directly to the task of national reconstruction. “The Hero is a universal story. In Central Europe, Latin America, Africa and in all the places where there is or there was war, hundreds of thousands must deal with the stigma, try to survive and become a part of post-war society. The aim of this movie is to show children - the former instruments of war—that it is possible to live in peace.”
The central character of the film, the hero of the title, is Vitório. We meet him at a hospital where he has been waiting for months for a prosthetic leg to replace the one he lost after stepping on a landmine, ironically in the last months of Angola’s civil war. He was impressed into service at age fifteen while at a seminary and has been fighting for twenty years since. A doctor finally takes pity on him and gives him a new leg; Vitório is compared to someone beginning a new life. But the decorated war veteran encounters little sympathy and much prejudice for an unskilled soldier with a prosthetic limb as he scours Luanda looking for a job.
At the same time we are introduced to another victim of the war, a bright ten year old orphan, Manu. He is being brought up by his paternal grandmother, Flora, after having been abandoned by his mother at birth and losing his father four years ago in the war. Manu is still searching desperately for his father and will not allow for the possibility that he has been killed. He has a hand-made telescope which he uses to scan the skies, a symbol for this search. Manu, like so many boys without enough adult supervision, is drifting into a life of petty crime, stealing bicycle tires and car radios. His second grade teacher, a well-off mulata named Joana, was a friend and admirer of his father and tries to fulfill some of the functions of an absent parent by encouraging Manu’s academic potential.
One night Vitório is so depressed he becomes drunk. During his fitful sleep a member of a local gang steals his leg and his medal. At this low point in his fortunes, Vitório begins a relationship with a prostitute named Judite. As they get to know each other better she reveals that Judite is only her nom de guerre and that her real name is Maria Barbara. She has suffered a great loss too, becoming separated from her son soon after his birth. She even appears on a heart-wrenching program called ‘Meeting Place,’ an actual Angolan television show where parents and children appear in an attempt to locate each other. Now she has a chance for a real relationship with Vitório.
When Vitório goes back to the hospital, he meets Joana who befriends him and invites him to her house for dinner. Vitório is not clear whether her interest is romantic or political. Joana decides to try to help Vitório and the other veterans who have been forgotten in post-war Angola. Her boy friend, Pedro, a cynical young representative of the emerging bourgeoisie, whose uncle is a Minister of the Interior in the current government, has just returned from four years of study in the United States. She persuades him to ask his uncle to arrange a 30-minute radio program using Vitório’s story as a symbol of the decline of social solidarity in Angola. During his eloquent radio interview Vitório says that ‘war has only succeeded in destroying my generation’s dreams.’ The broadcast proves a politically astute move; when the minister emerges from the radio studio he is met by scores of grateful war veterans.
In the meantime Manu has fenced a stolen car radio for Vitório’s stolen prosthesis which he says he will give to his father when they are reunited. There is an obvious contrast between the long empty telescope which nurtures Manu’s dreams and the long empty prosthesis which allows Vitório to get around Luanda’s streets. When Manu’s grandmother finds the prosthesis under his bed, soon after hearing the radio broadcast, she becomes furious and insists he return it to Vitório at the station. Vitório is not angry, only thankful to have his prosthesis back. He obtains a job as a chauffeur and in the last frames of the film we see Manu and him driving along the waterfront as if they were ‘ at least for that moment - father and son.
What differentiates The Hero from a Hollywood film is that it consistently abjures romantic endings for real life solutions. Vitório wanted to start a relationship with Joana but class differences dictated that Joana should end up with the unsympathetic, upper class Pedro and Vitório with Judite. Vitório is obviously not Manu’s real father nor is he the child Judite abandoned; but that doesn’t mean they can’t play a role in his upbringing. Instead of relying on biological relationships, people are having to improvise families. Similarly The Hero argues that Angola will have to rebuild itself as a nation by relying on new forms of solidarity and social interdependence among all its people. There comes a time, while still mourning the past, to start building the present.
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"One of those movies that are sad without being depressing because of the generosity and warmth fhe filmmaker brings to the story. It owes an obvious debt to The Bicycle Thief and is infused with the durable spirit of Italian neo-realism. Its presence here did Sundance proud."
New York Times
"A 20-year veteran of the 30-year-old Angolan civil war finds assimilation into the chaotic life of the capital city of Luanda a challenge in this affecting drama. Gamboa shows an assured directorial hand by managing the multiple storylines with aplomb."
"The Hero tells an inspiring and honest story of how the Angolan people are trying to reconstruct their lives with dignity and resiliency"
George Wright, Author, The Destruction of a Nation: The United States Policy Towards Angola since 1945