Director: Alexander Abela
In order to maintain the joy of discovery that motivated me to start this blog, I’ve decided to alter the order in which I will be moving through countries. Instead of proceeding rigidly through my list alphabetically, I’ve decided to mix things up by occasionally grouping movies by shared themes or genres instead. I dabbled with this back in March, when I wrote about three LGBT-themed films from different countries to celebrate Moonlight’s Best Picture win at the Oscars. Those entries were from Croatia, Nepal, and Lithuania, respectively.
For my next theme, I’ve chosen Shakespeare. I’ll be looking at film adaptations of The Bard’s plays from three different countries – a Macbeth version from Madagascar, a Romeo and Juliet retelling from Vanuatu, and a Maori language adaptation of The Merchant of Venice from my home country, New Zealand.
Makibefo is filmed and set entirely in the remote fishing community of Faux-Cap, at the southernmost tip of Madagascar. The cast is comprised of indigenous Antandroy actors, many of whom had never seen a television before – let alone a feature film. The Antandroy also had significant input into the script, thus turning Makibefo into a fascinating showcase for a cultural voice and storytelling tradition that has otherwise been ignored in cinema.
The story itself is well known – a violent tale of temptation, betrayal, and murder. While escorting a prisoner back to his village, Makibefo (Macbeth) encounters a witch doctor who tells Makibefo that he will someday be the king of his people. Obsessed by this prophecy and goaded by his ambitious wife, Makibefo decides to murder the current king Danikany (Duncan) and seize power for himself. What follows is a slow descent into guilt and paranoia – which in the original is conveyed mainly through monologue, but which Makibefo manages to tell non-verbally for the most part. The film’s soundtrack is an atmospheric blend of locally-captured natural ambience, traditional Antandroy chanting, and minimalist instrumental cues. Martin Zia, the Antandroy man who plays Makibefo, has an impressive ability to switch from determined to unsure, or from composed to manic, with just the twitch of a facial muscle or the slight adjustment of a stance.
The action in Makibefo is occasionally accompanied by voice over narration from Abela – which often consists of verbatim recitations from the Shakespeare play. In my opinion, this is unnecessary and unfortunately detracts from the purely cinematic storytelling that otherwise works so well.
Despite its setting in the Scottish Highlands and its famous moniker “The Scottish Play”, the original Macbeth really takes place in what is effectively a fantasy landscape of Shakespeare’s own creation. Shakespeare’s relationship with geography was always spotty – when describing the coastline of the landlocked country Bohemia in A Winter’s Tale, for example. In Makibefo, the opening shot places us on a flat, windswept beach in the arid, southern reaches of Madagascar. The eerie calm and bone-white sky are just as foreboding as the thunder and lightning that open the original play. The black-and-white cinematography evokes early cinema and places Makibefo outside of time, as well as place. For viewers skeptical of an East-African Macbeth, the film offers a reminder that, in Shakespeare, the specific details of settings are not as important as their emotional effects on the audience. The Macbeth story has been told countless times onscreen, but the unconventional setting makes this adaptation stand out immediately.
This is a bare-bones film, for certain. It was produced by a small technical crew, with a threadbare budget, and runs for a measly 73 minutes. But in that time it manages to faithfully retell a classic story in a new setting, and provide some scenes of incredible but harsh beauty. Makibefo highlights the universality of Shakespeare’s characters and themes, and demonstrates the startling freshness that a new cultural context can bring to a centuries-old tale.