Sambizanga / Prisioneros de la tierra
A bombshell by the first woman to direct a film in Africa, Sarah Maldoror’s chronicle of the awakening of Angola’s independence movement is a stirring hymn to those who risk everything in the fight for freedom. Based on a true story, Sambizanga follows a young woman (Elisa Andrade) as she makes her way from the outskirts of Luanda toward the city’s center looking for her husband (Domingos Oliveira) after his arrest by the Portuguese authorities—an incident that ultimately helps to ignite an uprising. Scored by the language of revolution and the spiritual songs of the colonized Angolan people, and featuring a cast of nonprofessional actors—many of whom were themselves involved in anticolonial resistance—this landmark work of political cinema honors the essential roles of women, as well as the hardships they endure, in the global struggle for liberation.
Prisioneros de la tierra
The most acclaimed film by one of classic Argentine cinema’s foremost directors, Mario Soffici’s gut-punching work of social realism, shot on location in the dense, sweltering jungle of the Misiones region, simmers with rage against the oppression of workers. A group of desperate men are conscripted into indentured labor on a treacherous, disease-ridden yerba maté plantation under the control of the brutal foreman Köhner (Francisco Petrone)—a situation that boils over in an explosive act of rebellion led by the defiant Podeley (Ángel Magaña), and made all the more tense by the fact that Köhner and Podeley love the same woman: Andrea (Elisa Galvé), the sweet-spirited daughter of the camp’s doctor. The expressionistic, shadow-sculpted cinematography of Pablo Tabernero evokes the feverish dread of a place where suffocating heat, economic exploitation, and unremitting cruelty lead inexorably to madness and violence.
The Criterion Collection's fourth dual-format (Blu-ray and DVD) box set in their continuing Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project series first pairs Sarah Maldoror’s 1972 film Sambizanga (from Angola) and Mario Soffici’s 1939 feature Prisioneros de la tierra (from Argentina) together on the set's first dual-layer Blu-ray disc. Both 1080p/24hz high-def presentations are delivered in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and sourced from new 4K restorations. The films are also presented in standard-definition on individual dual-layer DVDs.
As with just about every other restoration seen throughout the series these two deliver some wonderful surprises. In Sambizanga’s case the 35mm original negative appears to have been readily available so its restoration ends up coming out looking to be one of the better ones in the set. The final image provides an impressive level of detail in both close-ups and long shots, and grain appears to have been captured well. Damage is also not a real concern, only a few minor blemishes and stains popping up.
Range in the shadows is good for the most part but there are a handful of nighttime shots and sequences that may be day-for-night that come out looking a little flat with heavier blacks, though this could be inherent in the original photography. Colours do end up leaning that yellow/green hue (the film restoration was carried out with Cineteca di Bologna at L’Image Retrouvée) that has become unfortunately familiar in newer restorations but it feels subtle compared to others (including one other title in this set). Despite the warmer tone blues still look blue, whites lean a bit towards cream and black levels have not been negatively impacted.
All around Sambizanga’s base restoration looks great, clearly benefiting from the negative being available. Those behind the restoration for Prisioneros de la tierra’s, on the other hand, weren’t anywhere near as lucky since the only known print in existence at the time the restoration was initially undertaken was a terrible looking 16mm print, samples of which can be seen in an included feature. As explained in that same feature a search was conducted on a global scale and to everyone's surprise other prints were located, including a first-generation 35mm print that was in shockingly good condition. It even included footage that wasn’t present anywhere else. Other sources were also located, and they were used to fill in gaps, including a third-generation print that was also the primary source for the restoration’s audio.
Though the image for Prisioneros isn’t as sharp or as crisp as what Sambizanga offers, what the restoration team has managed to pull off is no less astounding. Contrast and grayscale may be the most impressive aspect, this new scan pulling up details that I'm sure no one knew existed by this point, and it really is extraordinary how it's all rendered, gradients cleanly blending into the darker shadows without a hitch with no obvious banding present. Black levels are nice and rich a lot of the time (a darker gray at other times) and they still allow slight detail in the shadow where the elements permit.
The image is also nearly free of damage, only a few minor scratches and stains appearing, along with some occasional fading on the sides. And though the image isn’t as razor-sharp as the other film on this disc most of the time grain appears to have been captured nicely, so any fuzziness or fading present appears to be inherent to the original photography, or at least how the images were captured when the print in question was struck. There are a few moments that can have a slightly dupier or darker look, but I’m assuming these instances are where alternate sources were used.
Sadly, despite how gorgeous the restorations themselves have turned out the end presentations end up falling a little short due to meh encodes. Prisioneros is the better looking of the two with a cleaner rendering of the grain. It’s not perfect, but it’s mostly nice and on my television screen I thought it held up. Sambizanga’s grain is quite a bit heavier in comparison to that film and the encode looks to have more trouble with it. It’s not a consistent issue with a lot of the film looked perfectly fine on my OLED screen, yet there are moments, usually in sequences where the sky can take up a lot of the background, where the grain looks buzzier and less natural. At it’s worst it’s nowhere near as bad as what Criterion’s La piscine delivered, but it’s there and hard to overlook. Blocking patterns can also pop up in a few darker areas of the screen, though to be fair you probably have to be looking for them to notice.
After some stronger-than-usual digital presentations the last few months (including what I thought was a mostly solid one for Exotica), and what are clearly two excellent restorations, there’s a slight sting of disappointment around these. At the very least the restorations themselves are shockingly good.
(Though I only sampled them, the DVD presentations look fine for what they are and don’t deliver any issues outside of the usual shortcomings of the format—limited range, compression artifacts, etc.)
Both films come with lossless PCM 1.0 monaural presentations on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtracks on the DVDs. Prisioneros de la tierra shows its age more with a slight edge to things alongside a general flatness with some heavier background noise, though this is all pretty much expected. Sambizanga sounds a little better but it can also features limited range. Neither show any severe damage, though.
Sambizanga (1972): 6/10 Prisioneros de la tierra (1939): 5/10
Criterion's World Cinema Project sets are usually limited when it comes to features, a disappointment for sure but I still suspect it's just a means of keeping costs down while getting these films, that sadly have limited appeal, out to market. Each film here comes with one significant supplement, alongside introductions by director Martin Scorsese, who (for around 3-minutes for each film) talks a little about the respective film and its history its filmmaker, and the work that went into the restoration.
For Sambizanga Criterion has recorded a new interview with director Sarah Maldoror’s daughter, Annouchka de Andrade intercut with older third-party footage from an interview with Maldoror herself, who passed away in 2020. De Andrade first discusses her mother’s background and her path to becoming a director before talking about her political passions. She was further inspired by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola’s leader, Mário de Andrade (Annouchka’s father), leading her to make more politically conscious films in the hopes of drawing attention to conflicts in Africa when most of the world was focused on Vietnam at the time. Her first attempt at a feature sounds to be unfinished and lost after issues with a producer, but she was able to regroup and start filming Sambizanga, with members of the militant MPLA cast in the major roles. In the footage featuring her Maldoror explains her point of view and what she aimed to depict in her films, whether it be how important women are in war or how she would depict the colonizers. Sadly, Maldoror's footage takes up a very small portion of the 26-minute feature, the director a clearly passionate and engaging personality (plus it's hard not to be taken by an individual who uses the term "hanky-panky," at least in the subtitle translation) de Andrade taking up the majority, but thankfully the director's daughter is just as engaging and it's nice to get a very personal take on the filmmaker and her work. Interestingly, Maldoror also did worked on Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, using the experience to learn what she could from the director.
Prisioneros de la tierra’s big supplement is listed to be about the film’s restoration, though only a few minutes of its’ 20-minute runtime focuses on that. Featuring an interview with Paula Félix-Didier, director of the Mueso del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken, and archivist Andrés Levinson, the discussion centers more around the film’s production and importance in Argentinian cinema, the film usually regarded as the first socially conscious film (though this isn’t entirely true). There are some fascinating details around the production that would probably make for a great documentary on their own (including what happened to the film’s original star), and even the author of the story the film is based on, but alas we only get a surface level examination of all of that here. Still, I did find the feature interesting, and they do get into a good amount detail about the restoration, supplying comparisons to the 16mm print that had been the only known copy of the film prior. Not surprisingly the print looks dreadful and, as the two point out, it’s striking just how different the film comes across in this new restoration, the photography coming off far more impressive. Another interesting fact I picked up here: Argentina has taken interest in restoring their films only within the last few years, meaning most of their older films are in dire shape. If they were able to pull off what they have with this film then I'd say there is hope for others in the archives.
Both films deserve more academic material so only getting a couple of features feels underwhelming. But again, this is more than likely a cost saving measure that gets these films out there. At the very least the two supplements are at least of good quality and worth viewing.
Though the digital encodes can leave one wanting the restorations themselves are stunning, both films now given a new lease on life.