A Portuguesa is an extraordinary film in many ways. It is very beautiful and it’s beautifully made with great intelligence. There is so much fascinating cinema out there but so often we find ourselves missing opportunities to see it and instead we allow ourselves to be led towards the mainstream. I have to confess that Portuguese cinema has long been overlooked in my cinema viewing and particularly the work of the great art film directors from that country. It’s not a surprise then that I have not seen anything by Rita Azevedo Gomes before, despite the fact that this is is her ninth film and that her first was made thirty years ago. Although successful at various festivals, Ms Gomes has not so far broken through into wider international recognition. Now, as a result of MUBI’s streaming service, more cinephiles will have a chance to ‘discover’ her.
A Portuguesa is a literary adaptation of a novella by the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880-1942) adapted by the director. It’s the second story from the collection Three Women (1924). The story is set in the 16th century in Northern Italy where a German nobleman, von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe), is engaged in military action against the Bishopric of Trent in the Dolomites. Von Ketten has brought his young Portuguese wife (Clara Riedenstein – very good) to a remote area where he has commandeered a small ‘castle’ on a hill at the end of a year-long honeymoon journey. Having established her in the castle von Ketten goes off to war, managing to make his wife pregnant twice in the little time he spends in the castle over the next 11 years. The first part of the narrative is mainly concerned with the ‘Portuguese woman’ herself (I don’t think she is actually named at any point) and how she finds a way to live in this isolated place and the second part deals with von Ketten’s return and what it means for the couple. But to write the outline in this way probably suggests a conventional narrative which this certainly isn’t. This is an art film in terms of both the sounds and images presented and in its narrative structure and (lack of) explicit narration.
The beauty of the film lies in its staging and cinematography. Gomes searched carefully to find suitable locations in Portugal to stand in for Northern Italy. At one point when the mist appears in the hills, the protagonist mentions Sintra, but I think many of the scenes were shot in Northern Portugal. The approach seems to have been to present moments/scenes from the protagonist’s life in the form of tableaux. The camera often remains static but with significant movement within the frame, especially in the many scenes played out in long shot. In an interview Gomes tells us that she and the veteran cinematographer Acácio de Almeida (born 1938) spent a long time with a digital camera attempting to find ways to produce the exact colour tones that the director required. On my computer screen and TV set, what they discovered took my breath away, especially in the early scene when the noble couple first approach the castle with their retinue. This was accompanied by choral singing which I assumed was meant to be diegetic, though I couldn’t see anyone singing. The music in the rest of the film is more clearly diegetic though. These early scenes are presented in a realist style with attention to details in costume, hairstyles etc. but when characters speak in tableaux, they declaim almost as if on stage. This sense of ‘realist artificiality’ is enhanced by a deliberate use of lighting in compositions, especially inside the castle, which refer directly to the Flemish school of painting. The other element, which also opens the film pre the title, is a form of one-person Greek chorus performed by Ingrid Caven (another veteran at 80, an actor associated with the work of her ex-husband Rainer Werner Fassbinder). She recites/sings the medieval poem ‘Unter der Linden’ while posing in the empty castle grounds in a simple, long black gown which in its style suggests ‘modernity’. Ms Caven will appear at various points in the narrative, sometimes alone, sometimes weaving through the tableau.
This use of classical references occurs throughout the film and the combination of these references and the limited narrative information about the long war makes the film difficult to follow as a linear narrative even if you know the artistic references and/or the history of the Bishopric of Trent (modern Trentino) – which I don’t. The narrative is intended, I presume to refer in some way to the Council of Trent, the many years of wrangling in the Roman Catholic Church over how to respond to the Protestant Reformation. The Portuguese woman appears to be an atheist. The original novella seems to be (by reviewers’ comments) part of a collection of love stories. The film doesn’t come across to me as a romance or a particularly erotic story, though the elements are all there to make it so. I think, instead, I found it an interesting narrative about gender roles, feudal society and other historical/cultural analyses. The most interesting of these for me was the presentation of a vital, talented young woman coming to terms, or not, with her situation. As part of this she has strong relationships with the women she has brought with her from Portugal, especially her closest servant-companion played by Rita Durão (who has been a leading player in earlier films by Gomes and also for other women directors). At one point there is mention of “Moorish slave girls” by the the Portuguese Woman but I couldn’t see any signifiers of ‘Moorish’ or indeed of ‘slaves’ – the younger women especially seem well treated by a ‘mistress’ who clearly appreciates them. It’s worth remembering at this point that Portugal was the first European country to establish a global empire from the late 15th century onwards.
The noblewoman is frustrated by her confinement but not in an anachronistic way. We recognise what her problems and her wishes are. The issues for her husband are also rooted in their time but are more difficult to fully comprehend. I assume that we are meant to see his commitment to war as something that stands in the way of a deeper and more sustained relationship with his partner and that his attachment to hunting is necessary to confirm his virility.
A Portuguesa is a long film (135 minutes) and this is for me its major flaw. It is slow-paced and after a time I found that the beauty of scenes began to be overtaken by my wish for more narrative information (perhaps this was because I missed the references I might be expected to follow up?). Even so, I found the film intriguing and aesthetically pleasing. I will watch any of the director’s other films that night appear. The film is on MUBI’s regular rolling programme for the next three weeks. I don’t know if it will then be accessible from the library. Here’s the original Portuguese trailer, French and German as well as Portuguese is spoken in the film.
Tabu has been a critical success with reactions to it, first at Berlin and then on release here in the UK, that are similar in some ways (but very different in others) to those that greeted The Artist at Cannes last year. It’s another film in beautiful Black and White, shot on 35mm and 16mm film and presented in Academy format (1.37: 1). Part of it is played without dialogue (but with some sound effects and supposedly diegetic music). But overall it is much more interesting and, for me at least, much more entertaining than The Artist.
The original Tabu was a 1931 romance/drama or melodrama created by the pairing of F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty – in some ways a very odd combination. It tells the tale of two lovers (local people not colonialists) on a South Seas island who pursue their love despite a taboo placed upon it – with the expected tragic conclusion. That film was in two parts: ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost’. Miguel Gomes’ 2012 Portuguese film reverses the order of the two parts and adds a prologue which in turn leads into ‘Paradise Lost’ in which we meet a ‘good woman’, Pilar, who finds herself having to attend to her elderly neighbour Aurora in contemporary Lisbon. Aurora was once a wealthy settler in Mozambique and aspects of her past are starting to haunt her. In the second part of the film, ‘Paradise’, Pilar imagines the kind of life that Aurora led while she listens to Aurora’s ex-lover from the early 1960s. Gianluca tells us about their affair in a voiceover as the story unfolds on screen without dialogue.
I’ve seen a quote from Gomes where he suggests that there is no deep meaning in the film and several critics go along with the idea that this is a playful film that moves from humanist drama/social realism in ‘Paradise Lost’ to sometimes comic surrealism in ‘Paradise’. For me, however, the whole narrative appeared to be about the colonial experience. This is a very rich text and Gomes must be a witty man as he makes a number of jokes which play on the conventions of the colonial melodrama and the specifics of Portuguese colonialism as well as the general colonial activities of Europeans in Africa. I’ll try and explain some of the ways in which Gomes presents this ‘colonial imagination’.
The film’s prologue refers to a trait of European colonial narratives, especially about Africa and the ‘heart of the continent’. What we see is then revealed to be a film being watched (seemingly on her own in a cinema) by Pilar who we later realise is a single woman with an interest in human rights issues around the world. She is, we assume, an internationalist Catholic, at one point dealing with a ‘Polish nun’ who may be coming to visit her in Lisbon and at other times perusing websites or taking part in peaceful demonstrations. Yet Pilar is still subject to the circulation of colonial narratives within which Aurora is forever trapped. Aurora has a carer/housekeeper, an intriguing character called Santa. Is Santa from Mozambique? Aspects of the narrative suggest not. In a revealing scene we see Santa reading Robinson Crusoe and then later attending a class in which she tells the teacher what she has been reading. “Extraordinary!” is the teacher’s response – and indeed it is. What should we make of this? One suggestion is that Santa is ‘free’ of the past and able to study it dispassionately, while Aurora is still caught up in it. Santa isn’t a naïve young woman. She’s older and wiser and carries out her duties in a professional way, betraying no sense of the legacy of a colonial relationship.
This reading of the Santa character is complemented by aspects of the style of the ‘Paradise’ story. Set, we presume, in the 1950s and early 1960s we see the young Aurora as a teenager and then as a young married woman, having met her husband, a tea planter, at university. This second story is filmed in 16mm which has more grain, slightly less definition and range of grey shades. The overall effect is to emphasise the history/memory feel of the experience. Yet, in the story that is presented, Gomes deliberately separates the white settlers and the local Africans. The settlers are shown in ‘authentic’ 1960s costumes and act as if they are in a historical drama – whereas the servants and the villagers/tea pickers etc. are shot in an almost documentary style, complete with 21st century clothes including the ubiquitous football shirts (I’m sure one small boy was wearing a Samsung shirt) found everywhere in contemporary Africa. This surreal juxtaposition adds to the dreamlike, playful nature of the film but also points to questions about the history of colonialism in Portuguese society.
I was struck by the similarity of some scenes in ‘Paradise’ to those in the Claire Denis film Chocolat (1988). In the Denis film we see the antics of the white colonialists through the eyes of the child of a French colonial administrator. In ‘Paradise’ there seems to be a similar slightly distanced gaze. I definitely felt a ‘difference’ in the colonialist culture represented in this film compared to those in British cinema. There is no presence of the British-style District Officer and none of the confrontational exchanges between settlers and servants/workers. The settler lifestyle, at least for the women seems languid and mildly decadent. Yet Mozambique and Angola were at this time preparing for the conclusion of the independence struggle which would culminate in the 25 April 1974 Revolution in Portugal and the subsequent independence of Mozambique along with Angola, Guinea-Bissau and other Portuguese colonial possessions.
I need to watch this film again to appreciate every aspect of its very clever and subtle presentation. This is another of this year’s crop of left-field movies from unusual film production contexts. Plaudits to director, writers, actors and cinematographer – great music too. Portugal joins Canada and Hong Kong as winners in our personal poll of this year’s best films.
This was my third ‘photography documentary’ in a mini-fest I seem to have created through my film choices. I’m struggling to classify the film but perhaps it is an art photography doc also referencing avant-garde cinema. The Portuguese filmmakers Marco Martins and André Príncipe travelled to Japan to present the work of six Japanese photographers. They decided to present these photographers and their work in the form of a kind of travel diary shot using wind-up Russian 16mm cameras and very grainy Black and White stock. All shot hand-held and presumably using only available light, the resulting footage was, I assume, processed to emphasise effects created by harsh contrasts and smearing lights in nighttime scenes. Overall the effect reminded me of American avant-garde films of the 1950s/6os. Sometimes this worked very well, but at other times I found the bobbing heads irritating as the camera attempted to follow a particular photographer through their chosen milieu.
I missed part of the opening credits (and the introduction) so perhaps I didn’t pick up all the information I needed to make sense of the film. The photographers featured are, I think, mostly well-known in the photography world. Here’s the list: Moriyama Daido, Hiromix, Nobuyashi Araki, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Soyien Kajii, Nakahiri Takuma. But apart from a single discrete title naming each photographer when they first appear, the only chance to learn about their methods is through what they tell us – which some do in detail, but others don’t.
Many of the photographers have developed a career through photobooks or ‘diaries’ so this perhaps explains the film’s title. Out of the six, two seems to focus on the streetlife of Shinjuku in Tokyo. A third delves into Tokyo parks after dark to expose couples and their accompanying voyeurs via infra-red photography. ‘Hiromix’ stands out as the only woman and her self-portraiture acts as a contrast to the exploitation (and celebration?) of aspects of the sex industry in some of the other work. Also distinctive is the work of Soyien Kajii whose images of temples in his trips to Sado Island represent a different Japan to that of the ‘extremes’ of Tokyo.
I think that I would have appreciated the film more if I’d researched the photographers beforehand and I would watch it again given a chance.