The Carrier is not an easy movie to watch. But the gravity of the subject matter should hopefully not drive away potential viewers, because the movie is ultimately more about human nature and perseverance than it is about the HIV/AIDS crisis. Far from light viewing, the film is among the most powerful to be screened at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.  Read the full review after the jump…

The Carrier, the directorial debut of native New Yorker Maggie Betts,  follows the story of a family in Zambia,  a country where polygamy is still legal and socially acceptable, dealing with HIV infection on a practical and emotional level.  The film follows Mutinta Mweemba, the second of three wives in her family, and also the second of the three to contract the virus.  Her husband, Abarcon, has also tested positive.  To make matters worse, Mutinta and first wife Brenda, are both pregnant, and fear that they may pass the virus along to their children.

The film raises several interesting moral questions.  When worse comes to worst, who is responsible for whom in a polygamist family?  Does the presence of HIV change the morality of polygamy?  Must we abandon tradition for the good of society, or does tradition stand as the basis for a society?  These multifaceted issues are reflected in the film’s narrative.  While Abarcon is portrayed as somewhat of a villain at the film’s onset, he is eventually revealed to be dealing with great loneliness and sadness in spite of the large family that surrounds him.  The third wife, Matildah, also appears to be selfish and mean before eventually reaching out, revealing her previous actions to be a result of fear.

The film is beautifully shot, densely populated with wide, sweeping landscapes, and intense, expressive closeups.  Furthermore, the filmmakers have been given incredible access to the local hospital where PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission) classes are taught.  Not only has the crew been allowed to document several medical visits by Mutinta and her family, they have been allowed to record the anti-HIV treatment of several other women at the hospital, the classes they are given, and even the birth of a child.

Some questions remain about the form of the film.  The film contains many “family portrait” shots which appear posed, leading one to wonder if certain other shots have been directed by the filmmakers.  Many scenes of familial interactions, including several heated arguments, are covered with such closeness that one wonders what effect the presence of the camera crew may have had.  A child born during the film is named Maggie (also the director’s first name) which seems unlikely to be a coincidence.  While a relationship between the filmmaker and subjects has clearly developed over the five years during which the film was shot, it is not entirely clear the nature of that relationship.

The film’s score, composed by Daniel Miller and David Della Santa, is fitting to the film’s solemn stillness, sense of dread, and moments of hope.  It does occasionally feel too directive.  Footage which could easily speak for itself (in fact it often does, with dialogue) is indicated as either morose or hopeful with music that occasionally errs on the side of imposing meaning.

In spite of its heavy subject matter and relatively bleak outlook, The Carrier manages to deliver an uplifting message that is not without hope for the future.  A scene depicting a meeting between the leaders of the chiefdom shows a complete absence of the preservation of outdated ideas, as the twenty or so men discuss only progressive and pragmatic reactions to the AIDS crisis.  In the face of great danger, the emotional barriers in the Mweemba family begin to break down.  In one very powerful scene, Mutinta finally confronts Abarcon about his reckless ways, forcing him to reckon with the truth he has long since ignored. Abarcon later opens up, saying “I grew up so loved, and I think it’s that feeling I keep searching for.”

The Carrier is a heart-wrenching depiction of human nature pushed to an extreme. It is a story of the human kindess that can arise from the worst of circumstances. In spite of its numerous downturns, the film somehow manages to end with a message of hope, albeit a cautionary one.

Rating: 7.5/10

Guest writer Nat Towsen is a freelance journalist, writer, filmmaker, and comedian.  He currently hosts The Moon, a variety show in New York City.