With the Indonesian invasion of East Timor as a backdrop, the passionate and committed Beatriz perseveres hardship as she awaits the return of her missing husband.
ADELAIDE FILM FESTIVAL: The first feature film to be produced in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, familiarly known as East Timor, Beatriz’s War reveals itself to be an earnest, generally capable film that deftly transposes the story of The Return of Martin Guerre to the Southeast Asian island reeling from Portuguese abandonment and Indonesian invasion in the mid-1970s.
there’s no mistaking the passion and commitment of everyone involved
It is during this volatile period that young Beatriz (Sandra Da Costa) is set up in an arranged marriage to villager Tomas (Eugenio Soares). Eight years later, after being relocated with the other villagers, Beatriz, now played by stage actress and co-scenarist Irim Tolentino, gives birth to a boy just as her husband is arrested and disappears.
Meanwhile, Indonesian strongman Captain Sumitro (Gaspar de Oliveira Amaral Sarmento) forces himself upon Beatriz’s sister Teresa (Augusta Soares), resulting in a child and a domestic arrangement Teresa tolerates but over which she anguishes in shame.
Sixteen years later, following the country’s 1999 independence, Tomas returns. Gone is the hesitant boy, replaced by a man tempered by years serving as a resistance fighter in the mountains. Beatriz is at first delighted at his return, but comes to suspect Tomas is not telling her everything.
Throughout the years, Beatriz and Teresa are watched over by kindly Father Nicolau, played by immensely popular musician, performer and artist Osme Gonsalves. Rounding out the major players is former real-life resistance fighter and current Timorese army commander Funu Lakan as Celestino de Anjos, who fought alongside Australian troops in World War II and was awarded a medal for his service (a prop that plays prominently in the film’s story).
Beatriz’s War was co-directed by Italian-born, Melbourne-based veteran documentary producer Luigi Acquisto and Timorese theater director and short filmmaker Bety Reis, who also has a small part in the early reels. Many of the actors will be familiar from Robert Connolly’s Balibo, which was shot in East Timor and in fact provided this film’s cast and crew with the experience and impetus to take the project on (and, as a side note, the matching surnames are not a coincidence; the da Costas and Soares are indeed related, and each clan is active in theater groups in the Timorese capital of Dili).
Romanian-born cinematographer Valeriu Campan, who has worked with Acquisto on numerous Timor-themed documentaries, turns in nicely composed action sequences, whilst the evocative sound mix allows for a more grand off-screen aural depiction of war than the budget perhaps allowed to be depicted.
Though somewhat melodramatic by western standards, there’s no mistaking the passion and commitment of everyone involved. And in the provocative story of Beatriz and Tomas, the filmmakers have found a narrative through-line capable of incorporating the major developments of that drawn-out conflict—as well as some convenient dramatic liberties—with plausibility and verisimilitude. ('It is my story," an audience member proclaimed after one Adelaide screening, 'it happened to me.")
If this review reads more as generous encouragement than criticism, well, why not? The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste will be, and surely should be, welcomed with open arms to the international film community. Beatriz’s War is a proud calling card to that end and a historical drama brimming with the passionate conviction of one woman’s commitment to family and country. Of such films are industries born.