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Based on the novel by Miguel Delibes, director Ana Mariscal’s El Camino (1963) focuses on a young boy, “Daniel” (José Antonio Mejías), and his life in a rural Spanish village. Also known as In the Empty City (in Portuguese, Na Cidade Vazia), Maria João Ganga’s Hollow City (2004) follows the plight of a newly orphaned boy, “N’dala” (Roldan João) as he wanders Angola’s capital during Civil War.
At first glance, El Camino and Hollow City might not seem like they have much in common. For one, the former takes place in the late 1940s—the latter set in 1991. Yet, after having watched the two, I find that they complement each other remarkably well. Both offer the beginnings of a coming-of-age story in which the audience looks at the world through a child’s point of view. Together, they offer both parallels and juxtapositions of how such a child must grow — as seen through the lenses of death, setting and agency, and friendship.
Wasting no time, Mariscal opens El Camino with the mention of death. In a scene where Daniel’s parents discuss his impending departure to the city, Daniel overhears his mother mention her “dry belly” due to a previous abortion. Though this is the mere mention of death long passed, it introduces the subject to a young Daniel’s consciousness. In a field, he and his friends wonder whether or not the bones of Spanish Civil War soldiers long-dead would crumble if touched. At the end of the film, “Germán’s” (Jesús Crespo) fatal fall from the rocks into the river brings death straight to Daniel’s doorstep. Stunned and scared, Daniel must grapple with death as something tangible, when before it seemed like a mere idea to ponder.
For N’dala, death hangs so closely it cannot be ignored. As a child living during a war, he cannot escape the horrors that accompany it. Even before the start of the film, N’dala has already lost his immediate family. From this point onward, death can only come closer until it enlists him as a player. When he fires a bullet into the chest of the man “Joka” (Raúl Rosário) wishes to rob, he seems to seal his fate. Perhaps he knows this, as he gazes in sadness and pain at a painting on a wall as if waiting for the man to get back up and shoot him dead.
In the eyes of both Daniel and N’dala, we see death’s reflection in colors of fear, shock, and a sadness that seems bottomless.
SETTING & AGENCY
Daniel’s world borrows its calm, safe atmosphere from the nature of the Spanish countryside. He has only known a life with the same river, mountains, and people. Here he is comfortable and has no desire to leave. Though N’dala also grew up in a village, he spends the entirety of Hollow City displaced and uncomfortable, wandering the city in which he has sought refuge. In essence, we find two young boys caught on opposite ends of a similar scenario. Daniel, comfortable where he is, will have to face a city foreign to him and without his family’s support. N’dala, an alien in a strange and tough new environment, is already alone. He had no choice but to leave the village he loved for this lonely city. Perhaps, to an extent, N’dala’s reality offers a window into Daniel’s future.
As children, neither have the agency to choose what they want to do next – N’dala even less so, as his situation is a direct effect of war. Daniel is where he wishes to be, but must leave by order of his father. N’dala is not where he hopes to be at all, and he cannot go back to the village he left because it no longer exists. His family no longer exists. Both are trapped, and we can feel their unhappiness.
Both films feature strong yet ephemeral friendships. Daniel and his friends Germán and “Roque” (Ángel Díaz) contemplate the world together. Though Daniel spends most of the film pushing the little “La Uca” (Maribel Martín) away, he eventually recognizes her as a loyal friend during trying times. As the two walk away from Germán’s freshly filled grave, Uca asks if Daniel will let her walk with him. He agrees, and the two hold hands as they leave the cemetery together. In Hollow City, N’dala and “Zè” (Domingos Fernandes Fonseca) become fast friends in a city that offers little comfort. Zè shelters N’dala, who accepts Zè as the closest thing he has to family now. When the two are separated, N’dala loses his way. The absence of Zè, a figure of family and protection, leaves N’dala exposed to the adult world that infringes upon his own. The price, as we know, is fatal.
THE WORLD THROUGH A CHILD’S EYES
There is both pain and joy in seeing a world—dulled by our own constant gaze—light up when viewed through the eyes of a child. For this child, who has yet to be exposed to the knowledge that adults already possess, new information must be contextualized in ways that he can understand. For example, death will only ever be a distant, nebulous concept until it stares you in the face. Daniel and his friends do not think much of the terrible deaths that Civil War soldiers must’ve endured, only of whether or not their bones crumble. Though N’dala has witnessed war and violence, he cannot accept his family’s death. When he expresses his desire to find them up “in the sky,” we can read this as an expression of death. But N’dala believes that his family is literally in the sky, waiting for him.
To see a child’s innocence leave is not easy. But to see the world through this very innocence and experience their youthful ignorance can be a true joy. To see N’dala, wait and wait for Zè’s return breaks my heart. To see Daniel and his friends ponder the origin of babies is great fun. Roque uses his knowledge of how rabbits give birth to inform his idea of how people give birth, and he actually gets it right, dispelling Germán’s theory that babies come from a stork. Daniel’s prior cruelty exhibited towards Uca makes his acceptance of her all the more powerful. Though he once called her freckles ugly, he now tells her never to let anybody take them away because – we can assume – he loves them.
Through films such as these, we get a glimpse into a world we ourselves once inhabited yet have forgotten.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (9/7/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: N’dala looks out at Luanda, Angola’s capital city
Photo Credits: Thomas Roy (Hollow City), Producciones Cinematográficas Españolas Falcó & Cía. (PROCINES) (El Camino)