Letter to an Angel

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“In a certain place, at a certain time.” Garin Nugroho’s Letter to an Angel opens with this caption, setting up an indistinct spatial and temporal location, almost as if we were in the territory of myths or fables. And yet, the narrative that follows, from the very first sequence documenting a burial ritual, with the moving of a huge tombstone, is strongly characterised geographically – we are in Sumba, an island in eastern Indonesia, between Bali and Timor, characterised by an animist culture and the presence of horses, both domestic and wild, but also temporally – since in the narrative we see images of Madonna and Mikhail Gorbachev, described as a hero “with the courage to defend what he believes in.” Against this backdrop, between imaginative scenery and anthropological documentation, Nugroho stages the fate of Lewa, an indomitable boy, a valiant horseman, who refuses to recognise the image of his “mother” – of his own mother – in the Indonesian language school text, who apparently died in a car accident (and for this, Lewa appropriates the image of a poster of the singer Madonna affixed to the side of the wreckage of the bus his mother was travelling on), but also, thinking in metaphorical- political terms, of a unifying Indonesian mother, in a gesture of cultural resistance and identity claim.

Indeed, when Garin Nugroho made Letter to an Angel, Indonesia was still under the military dictatorship of General Suharto (which lasted until 1998) and the national film industry was literally zeroed out, with directors, producers, actors and workers devoted almost exclusively to the production of sinetron, television soap operas. To shoot a film in the remote island of Sumba in the early 1990s, working with the local populations, giving voice to their language and filming their ritual practices in a documentary way, is a gesture of remarkable artistic and political courage, bordering on madness.

But beyond the political gesture, Letter to an Angel, which premiered at the 1994 Berlinale Forum, is an astonishing, fascinating and unclassifiable cinematic object.

Because if on the one hand it is saturated with the ethnographic and anthropological data mentioned above, on the other hand, the screenplay written by Nugroho with Armantono (who also worked on the scripts of Leaf on a Pillow, 1998, and Opera Jawa, 2006) is inspired by no less than three literary works, Una carta a Dios by the Mexican Gregorio Lópes y Fuentes and A Country Boy Quits School by the Chinese Lao She and the novel The Stranger by the Frenchman Albert Camus.

 

Paradoxically – or not – the result is a whimsical, bewildering tale full of surprises, in which little Lewa confides to the postman that he writes letters to an angel, receives a Polaroid camera as a gift from a model passing through Sunda for a photo shoot, and how the snapping of disrespectful shot triggers a real war between neighbouring villages, but above all, he opposes the arrogance of the local boss Kuda Liar (wild horse), an absurd admirer and emulator of Elvis Presley.

Amid colourful and evocative characters, amidst the violence, that of the ruthless Kuda Liar and the clash between villages, but also the documentary, with the ritual sacrifices of animals (particularly horses at funerals), of figurative lyricism – the dances at sunset – and even of eroticism – the rape of Berlian Merah and the embrace between Lewa and the latter, not forgetting how the courtroom drama, Letter to an Angel escapes the canons of orthodoxy of fine film writing, offering up a cinematic experience that is both unique dazzling.

30 years after its premiere, thanks to the restoration and digitisation carried out in 2019 by the Asian Film Archive in Singapore from two positive prints found in Indonesia and Japan, it is a cinematic adventure that is truly worth (re)discovering.

Paolo Bertolin
Film director: Garin NUGROHO
Year: 1994
Running time: 120'
Country: Indonesia
27/04 - 8:10 PM
Visionario, Via Asquini 33
27-04-2024 20:10 27-04-2024 22:10Europe/Rome Letter to an Angel Far East Film Festival Visionario, Via Asquini 33CEC Udine cec@cecudine.org
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