The Train of Salt & Sugar is an African cross-country adventure with powerful social themes
The Train of Salt & Sugar made history as the first Oscar foreign-language entrant for Mozambique. A landmark film for the country, it is laden with historical significance and set during the Mozambican Civil War.
The African conflict spanned 15 years as armed rebels restricted the free flow of basic commodities such as sugar, which became precious enough for civilians to risk their lives, travelling hundreds of miles by rail in order to trade salt for sugar in Malawi.
Conflict between soldiers and passengers
The Train of Salt & Sugar envisages a single train journey between Nampula and Malawi. Covering 700 kilometres of sabotaged railway tracks through war-ravaged territories, ambushes are inevitable, forcing the government to provide a military escort. Commander Sete Maneiras, known as “Seven Ways”, leads the convoy with 50 soldiers to safeguard civilians and their precious cargo.
Flanked by Lieutenant Taiar and Ensign Solomon, a rift develops between the soldiers as their enigmatic commander rules with a sense of spiritual immunity from flying bullets and insubordination. His laissez-faire style of leadership is called into question as ill-disciplined soldiers exploit their rank over passengers.
Meanwhile, a young nurse named Rosa travels to her first job, trying to navigate the dangers of an arduous train journey and the advances of those sworn to protect her.
Powerful performances from an unknown cast
Licínio Azevedo’s The Train of Salt & Sugar plays like a docudrama, detailing the treacherous journey through some powerful performances. The clipped pacing, earthy tones, exterior shooting and edit reinforce this notion, keeping the momentum upbeat. There’s little spoon-feeding and while some bits are left to the imagination, it’s sometimes surprising that Azevedo didn’t soak up more suspense.
The adventure-drama features a relatively unknown cast in Matamba Joaquim, Melanie de Vales Rafael, Thiago Justino and António Nipita. This anonymity helps with the immersion but is by no means a reflection on their collective talents. With the movie taken from a landscape perspective, it’s some time before the main players come into focus. This unearthing keeps you invested as heroes and villains emerge on the horizon.
Joaquim and Rafael would be Jack and Rose if this doomed voyage was the Titanic.
On-screen chemistry keeps the action on track
Joaquim and Rafael would be Jack and Rose if this doomed voyage was the Titanic. Joaquim’s firm but fair approach becomes the voice of integrity as he fights for what’s right as Taiar. Playing opposite him is Rafael as a caring and smart Rosa, who adds heart to this adventure, playing by the rules even when she becomes an object of desire.
Two powerful performances come from Thiago Justino and António Nipita as veteran soldier Ensign Solomon and shamanic commander “Seven Ways” respectively. Justino’s intimidating screen presence is felt, backed by his character’s disturbingly fatalistic ideology. Treating civilians like cargo, his intense performance is only dwarfed by Nipita’s take on Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.
He may not have Brando’s permanence but there are strong parallels as we try to separate the myth from the man. The powerful locomotive is a character too, cutting through beautiful landscapes and adding an epic quality as the backdrop for almost every shot.
An African western that tackles social issues
The Train of Salt & Sugar sways into some powerful moments that veer from wild cross-country adventure into tense social drama. The epic adventure-drama plays into the western genre with train robberies, railway sabotage and the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to law enforcement. There aren’t any horses or Stetsons but you get the impression from the railway setting and surly mix of characters.
The film grapples with a number of social issues affecting the people from religious protection to gender politics and civilian-soldier relations. Passengers, soldiers and conductors reaffirm their spiritual beliefs as the threat of imminent death and disaster lingers around them. Heroes emerge along with the blemishes of a fiercely patriarchal society as gender relations echo traditional roles. In the midst of a brutal civil war, soldiers in uniform assert their belief that they’re more valuable than ordinary citizens.
The Train of Salt & Sugar is a gritty and relentless film, given dramatic texture by traversing through dark and light moments of humanity. Much like a train journey, Azevedo’s film is a little bumpy at times but powerful performances, the film’s epic western sentiment, enigmatic spirit of adventure, timely social commentary and picturesque landscapes power it home.