Films that depict famous historical events often walk a fine line between historical accuracy and commercial success. April Captains (Capitães de Abril), directed and co-written by Maria de Medeiros (with Eve Deboise) is one such film. It tells the story of one of the most significant events in recent Portuguese history, the ‘Carnation Revolution’ of 1974, depicting, through the actions of both real and fictional characters, the main events of the night of 24th April and those of 25th April, when a group of disillusioned captains of the armed forces led a revolt to overthrow the right-wing dictatorship.
A powerful image of the rotting bodies of Africans at the beginning of the film tells us all we need to know about the horrors of the colonial war in Africa, which the captains had witnessed first-hand, having been sent there to fight in a war they no longer believed in. The focus of the film then moves to Lisbon and shows a young couple, Daniel (Duarte Guimarães) and Rosa (Rita Durão), kissing goodnight as they discuss his probable deployment to Africa. Through these two minor characters, the fictional and factual become intertwined, as Daniel is a soldier in Captain Maia’s troop. Maia, portrayed as a handsome charismatic leader by Italian actor Stefano Accorsi (dubbed by João Reis), was one of the real-life heroes of the revolution and the film follows the key events of his attempt to take control of the government headquarters in the centre of Lisbon, starting with his initial taking control of the Santarém barracks, where he was stationed, on the night of 24th April to the surrender of the Prime Minister, Marcelo Caetano (Ricardo Pais), on the evening of 25th April. Interspersed with these real events is a subplot which centres on a left-wing intellectual, Antónia (Maria de Medeiros), who happens to be Rosa’s employer. Antónia is married to an army captain, Manuel (Frédéric Pierrot, dubbed by Vitor Rocha), who she believes to be pro-government. Our first view of them is through the eyes of their very young daughter, Amélia (Raquel Mariano), as she lies in bed listening to them arguing. Antónia is the nucleus around whom left-wing activists gather, including her friends Gabriel (Manuel Maquiña, dubbed by Sérgio Godinho) and Virgílio (José Eduardo) and her student Emílio (Pedro Hestnes), who has been arrested by the DGS (the secret police) for his political beliefs. Antónia is also the sister of a government minister, Felipe (Joaquim Leitão), and is therefore able to get into places that other political opponents of the government can’t. On the night of 24th April she goes to a formal party which is attended by many top-ranking people, including Salieri, the head of the DGS, played menacingly by Canto e Castro. A scene where Salieri confronts Antónia in the bathroom at the party shows the intimidating nature of the regime that the Portuguese were living under and this is magnified later in the film when we hear Emílio’s off-screen screams as he is being tortured.
While Maia is concentrating his troops on the overthrow of the government there is a secondary story focusing on a group of soldiers, led by Manuel, who take control of a radio station. The scenes with this group add a welcome comic element to the film, particularly in a memorable scene when the four men are getting changed in a very small car and are accosted by a couple of homosexuals who misunderstand the situation and only disappear when the song ‘Grândola, Vila Morena’ starts playing over the radio, giving the soldiers their signal. Antónia isn’t aware of Manuel’s involvement in the revolution until Maia informs her the next day, and in a scene where she goes to the radio station and she and Manuel sit down and talk, there is a tenderness between them that we feel hasn’t been there for a long time.
Despite the film being two hours in length, it can only cover the main events of the revolution and in order to add the human interest story, de Medeiros has made some of the situations, such as Antónia having a brother in the government, being friends with Maia and even knowing one of the four people (Virgílio) who die during the revolution, a bit tenuous. But despite this, the film is very watchable. It is true enough to the events of the 25th April 1974 and captures the atmosphere in the city as the people take to the streets to celebrate and are handed carnations by the city’s flower sellers to appeal to a Portuguese viewer, but it is also accessible to anyone who doesn’t know anything about this remarkable revolution. De Medeiros, who was a child growing up in Lisbon in 1974 with left-wing intellectual parents, adds a personal touch to the events of 25th April and it did make me wonder what kind of film it would have been if it had been directed by someone else. It does play on the emotions, with a score by António Victorino d’Almeida and the hauntingly beautiful song ‘As Brumas do Futuro’ by Madredeus playing over the closing credits, and with scenes that bring a smile to the face and a tear to the eye, such as when the pro-government soldiers ignore Brigadier Pais’ (Luís Miguel Cintra) instructions to fire on Maia and then go over to Maia’s side and when the political prisoners are released. However, it does manage to successfully walk the line between historical accuracy and commercial success.