After an unspecified tragedy wipes out a small South African town, an unnamed traveller (Joäo Arrais) journeys across the desolate landscape in search of his mother. The first feature film by Portuguese director Carlos Conceição to follow a collection of shorts and video installations, Serpentarius is both a personal journey (the picture opens with a short introduction about the filmmaker’s life that mirrors the nameless traveller’s journey, with Conceição providing the voiceover) and an existential one that transcends time and space to ponder issues about colonialism, death and existence itself. A symphony of image, sound and creativity, the movie is, for the most part, a captivating and genre-defying experience. Unfortunately, the momentum begins to fizzle out towards the latter half, resulting in a rather dry and lacklustre finale.
Undoubtedly, the film is at its best and most enjoyable whenever it fully embraces its creativity. Throughout the subject’s expedition, he becomes an early ruff-wearing colonist, a cowboy and an astronaut piloting a spaceship taken straight from a 70s B-movie. Likewise, the aspect ratio changes accordingly to match the time period represented, whilst the musical score constantly shifts between synths, violins and African drums. With a dash of humour thrown in for good measure, the first half of the relatively short runtime offers a variety of sights and sounds piled on top of one another to build a strong foundation – that ultimately collapses on itself.
The biggest culprit of the film’s downfall is its pacing, which grinds to all but a halt, leaving the inventive sequences behind in favour of prolonged scenes of walking in silence. While the narrative proceeds at a gentle pace from the outset, disregarding these interludes makes for a much drier viewing experience. Similarly, Conceição has a tendency to hold onto shots far longer than necessary. Though the cinematography is consistently exquisite in depicting the natural beauty of its African landscape, extended shots of sunsets, wildlife and (you guessed it) walking linger long enough for the beauty to transform into self-indulgence. Much of this excess fat could have been trimmed without anything being lost from the overall experience.
As it stands, Serpentarius is a bold experiment in visual storytelling that largely succeeds in its efforts. With the first half relishing in frequent creative outbursts, it’s disappointing it stumbles so much in the end, undermining an otherwise perfect conclusion.
Serpentarius (Serpentário) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch some clips from Serpentarius here: