Beatriz’s War

July 19, 2014
Irim Tolentino as Beatriz in 'A Guerra da Beatriz' (2013)
Irim Tolentino as Beatriz in 'A Guerra da Beatriz' (2013)

Having finally managed to see Beatriz’s War, I almost wish I hadn’t. This first-ever feature from Timor-Leste is a rite of passage; a catharsis for the wrongs endured during the Indonesian occupation. One suspects it will be a long time before the East Timorese are producing comedies and musicals. There’s too much pain and trauma to be overcome, too vivid an awareness of an oppressive recent history. If this film isn’t the most devastating portrait of the brutality that passes for policy in Indonesia that’s only because Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing (2012) is a hard act to follow.

It’s been said that Beatriz’s War doesn’t require any special pleading but that’s wishful thinking. This is a sincere but amateurish production in which events unfold with a sense of tragic inevitablity. The acting is two dimensional, and the dialogue – or at least the subtitles – undistinguished.

Co-directors, Luigi Acquisto and Bety Reis, have set out to cover a broad sweep of East Timorese history, beginning in 1979, four years after the departure of the Portuguese and the arrival of the Indonesians. Prior to the invasion the population enjoyed ten days of independence – a privilege not to be recaptured until 2002, when Timor-Leste became the first new nation of the 21st century.

We join the story with the Indonesians engaged in a struggle with Falantil, the East Timorese guerilla army. Beatriz is an eleven-year-old girl, soon to be wed to Tomas, a boy from a good family. On the day of this wedding between two children, the Indonesians attack, and Beatriz loses her mother.

This is only the beginning of the violence. As the story leaps ahead by years at a time there are more acts of brutality. The only trace of stability arrives when the East Timorese women decide to sacrifice their honour to the Indonesian soldiers in order to bring more children into the community.

The film is not exactly a bloodbath but that may be because of budget constraints – it was made for only $200,000. Much of the worst violence happens off-camera or at long distance. There are no lavish special effects: those who get shot in Beatriz’s War simply fall to the ground. It’s also possible that the directors aimed for a ritualistic effect, underlining the idea of the dead as martyrs to a higher cause.

This deliberate, episodic way of telling a story is not conducive to character development. We are closest to Beatriz (Irim Tolentino) and her sister-in-law, Teresa (Augusta Soares), but their characters evoke little empathy. The chief villain is the Indonesian officer, Captain Sumitro (Gaspar Sarmento), who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Joe Hockey. Sumitro carries out callous and murderous acts in the most casual manner, as if it were just another day at the office.

It might seem strange to decry a lack of melodrama but the portrayal of both good and bad characters could have used a little more angst. The press release tells us that Beatriz’s War “is the story of one woman’s passion for independence and justice, both for her nation and for her soul.” But there is far more stoicism than passion on display.

The strangest aspect of Beatriz’s War comes at the end, when the Indonesians have departed. The story takes a sudden turn and becomes a doppelganger for The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), Daniel Vigne’s tale of assumed identity set in the middle ages. This storyline was presumably introduced as a way of emphasing that the new nation of Timor-Leste must be able to face the past without lies or deceit. It closes the door on a long period of uncertainty, but feels awkward and anomalous, as if the movie had taken off on a new path.

Beatriz’s War is one of those flawed but necessary works of art that lay the ghosts of the past before a war-torn nation can look towards the future. Even if it fails as drama, it is a movie that will educate many people about the recent history of Timor-Leste. That’s a legitimate raison d’etre, because it’s a story the world needs to know.

Beatriz’s War
Directed by Luigi Acquisto & Bety Reis
Written by Luigi Acquisto & Irim Tolentino
Starring Irim Tolentino, Augusta Soares, José da Costa, Osme Goncalves, Gaspar Sarmento.
Timore-Leste, rated M, 105 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19 July, 2014.

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