There are few films that haunt me until I write about them. Some films are meant to be remembered but not necessarily reported on. Today, when I found out that filmmaker Pocas Pascoal’s film, All is Well (Por Aqui Tudo Bem), won Best Narrative Film at the Los Angeles Film Festivalfollowing it’s North American premiere last weekend, I knew I had to write about it.
The film centers on two teenaged sisters, Alda and Maria (played by Ciomara Morais and Cheila Lima), who flee a war-torn Angola in the 1980’s, seeking exile in Portugal while they await their mother’s arrival. Their stay quickly takes an unexpected turn when their mother’s arrival is delayed, and they struggle to survive on the streets of Lisbon.
A subtle, nuanced drama, All is Well measures the impending danger of the Angolan civil war on this family through the presence of a pay phone. It is here that both sisters await news from their mother. The phone comes to represent an uncomfortable shelter; a manifestation of what Portugal means and what it lacks as a “home” for them.
Pascoal works deftly with visual contrasts, in everything from character appearances to atmospheric contradictions. There’s a round openness to Maria’s face, while Alda’s features are more angled and exact. The physical terrain of their faces funnel into their character arcs, resulting in a relationship that is layered and complex. In one of the more symbolic scenes, Alda, Maria, and Maria’s love interest Carlos rest on a local beach that is bordered by a massive chemical plant. The idea of Portugal as a safe space, as a refuge or paradise, is quickly complicated. Portugal is a place divided by racial and economic realities, as seen here.
Those realities influence the way that each character copes with the civil war in their homeland. In capturing this, nothing is overt or advertised. This is not a film that holds a political banner. A dressmaker who masks grief at her son’s murder by becoming an ill-tempered employer to Alda and Maria, sits in a dark shadow smoking a cigarette when they bring up news of their mother.
That news starts to become scattered and critical as the film draws on. As the audience, we want the news just as much as these sisters want it. We want to hear their mother’s voice. One of the major achievements of this work is its ability to implant the audience so firmly into the relationship of these two women that one might feel like the third sibling at points. The actors embody this relationship with a sort of closeness that carries the narrative through slow-building scenes and more urgent ones.
There’s a special importance to this film at a time when debates on immigration, exile and refugee asylum are being waged across the world. As Israel deports Sudanese migrants who fled war, and makes plans to deport thousands more, we wonder about the human faces and stories in the midst of these harsh policies. During the Q&A for All is Well, director Pocas Pacoal spoke of the film as being a personal project, inspired by her own relationship with her sister. A film like this could only come out of that personal space. It privileges character relationships and atmospheric texture over political branding and succeeds enormously in that regard. It is in that attention to kinship, survival, and teenage rites of passage that larger discussions of war and exile can be fostered. When I left the theater, I could only think about these two sisters and the bond that they shared. And in the end, any discussion on exile or immigration should be centered there; with the people and their stories.
This review is cross-posted at Shadow & Act on the Indiewire network HERE.