Director: Licínio Azevedo
Excitingly, 2017 will be the first year that Mozambique submits a film for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture. That film is Train of Salt and Sugar, a heart-pounding adventure story that can stand alongside the best in its genre.
The film takes place in 1988, and begins at a rural train station in Northern Mozambique. A diverse crowd of people waits silently on the platform, while teams of armed soldiers make final preparations to the decrepit old locomotive on the tracks. Working with solemn efficiency, they affix thick plates of armour to the flanks of the carriages, and mount heavy machine guns to the roofs. The train is a great, creaking behemoth, bristling with gun barrels, and wouldn’t look out of place in a Mad Max film.
This train is headed northwest, into neighbouring Malawi. But between here and the border are five hundred miles of remote, guerrilla-controlled territory. Raids and ambushes are frequent, lead by the infamous rebel commander Xipoco, hence the need for an armed escort aboard the train. Before the passengers are allowed to board, one officer relays crucial instructions: if an attack comes from the left, they must take cover on the right side of the train, and vice versa. And they must not run from the sound of gunfire, lest they hit a landmine or be captured by enemies lying in wait.
Reasons for attempting this treacherous journey are as numerous and varied as the passengers themselves. Some, like Mariamu, want to buy salt and sugar where those things are cheap, and sell them where they are expensive – taking advantage of the scarcity brought on by Mozambique’s ongoing civil war. Some, like the young nurse Rosa, are travelling in search of work. Other passengers include pregnant women and entire families – a ragtag collection of souls united only by a shared need to get from one place to another.
The disparate backgrounds of the different characters allow for conversations that reveal the multi-faceted nature of civil war-era Mozambican society. Rosa’s modern education in medicine, for instance, puts her at odds with a young couple who are travelling back to their village to have their sick newborn baby treated by a traditional healer. In another case, a soldier criticises his lieutenant for being a graduate of the military academy, but having little experience in actual combat. The interactions that the passengers and soldiers have, both amongst themselves and with each other, are therefore the film’s main source of human drama.
Train of Salt and Sugar is, first and foremost, a suspense thriller. The train creeps through silent landscapes marked by dense vegetation and abandoned villages, any one of which might be hiding an ambush. The constant rumble of the engine provides an ominous and foreboding ambiance during the journey. Whenever the train must stop to resupply, clear an obstruction, or repair a damaged stretch of track, the tension mounts to unbearable heights. It is impossible to tell exactly when the next ambush will appear, or from which direction it will come. This is compounded by the fact that a few of the soldiers aboard the train have their own sinister intentions. Lieutenant Taiar, their leader, is capable and goodhearted. But behind his back many of his men are robbing and abusing the passengers they are meant to protect.
Every technical aspect in Train of Salt and Sugar, from editing to camerawork to sound design, is slick and stylish. Performances are subtle but powerful, and action scenes are sparing but intense. The film is highly effective as a piece of sustained suspense, and is fleshed out with a varied and fascinating cast of characters. It deserves to find a wider audience, and I hope to see it nominated for Best Foreign Picture this year.