April Captains (2000), Portuguese cinema

April Captains (2000)

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 wars 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.

Portuguese cinema, To Die Like a Man (2009)

To Die Like a Man (2009)

To Die Like a Man (Morrer Como um Homem) is a film directed and co-written by João Pedro Rodrigues, which was nominated for the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The film opens with a close up of a soldier putting camouflage on his face and marching with his platoon into a wood, where he goes off with another soldier to have sex. Shortly after, disgusted by what he has done, he shoots the other soldier outside the house of two refined transvestites. The theme of the film, the confusion of one’s own sexual and gender identity, is encapsulated in the opening minutes of the film.

The soldier, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch) is the son of the film’s protagonist, Tonia (Fernando Santos). Tonia is a bulky middle-aged transvestite with a mass of blonde curly hair, who works as a drag queen in a seedy Lisbon nightclub. She is aware her career is coming to an end, as a younger more female-looking drag queen (Jenni La Rue) is starting to gain the popularity that Tonia formerly had. With this is mind Tonia has decided to have a sex change and become a woman. However, having made this decision the rest of her life is in turmoil. She is in a masochistic relationship with her younger drug-addicted boyfriend, Rosário (Alexander David), and has a difficult relationship with Zé Maria, whose sense of being abandoned by his father is symbolized in a scene where he carefully places some items in Tonia’s fish tank, including one of Tonia’s stiletto shoes and a photograph of himself as a child with his father, before asking his father to give him a place to hide from the police. Tonia’s only positive relationship is with her pet dog and later with a stray dog that she adopts, although even her pet dog has betrayed her by taking some of her beloved possessions, including her rosary (despite her non-conformist lifestyle, she is a devout Catholic) and burying them in her garden.

In an attempt to get Rosário away from the drug dealers of Lisbon Tonia suggests a trip to the country to visit Rosário’s brother. On the way they come across the secluded house of the transvestite couple from the opening scenes of the film, the prima donna-ish Maria (Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida) and her dowdy partner, Paula (Miguel Loureiro), whose relationship isn’t portrayed as a positive one. Paula makes very little effort to look like a woman but plays a submissive role to Maria, who dresses in feminine clothes but has an aggressive personality, which raises more questions of gender roles within sexual relationships. Later, when Tonia realises that the blood that has been leaking from her silicon breast implants is, in a way, her body rejecting being a woman and is a sign that she is seriously ill, she decides to die as a man with all vestiges of femaleness removed.

What could have been a depressing film is lifted by the humanity given to the character of Tonia through the script and direction of Rodrigues and by the sympathetic performance of Fernando Santos. The film is long and a surreal scene where Tonia, Rosário, Maria and Paula sit in the woods by the house at night without moving while the screen turns red and a disconcerting song about sorrow, weeping and carrying a cross to Calvary (‘Calvary’ sung by Baby Dee) is played over the top, makes the film, which runs at over two hours, seem much longer. The film could have been improved by some editing, but it is a compelling watch.

God's Comedy (1995), Portuguese cinema

God’s Comedy (1995)

The central character of God’s Comedy (A Comédia de Deus), a film which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1995, is the eponymous João de Deus (played by the film’s writer and director João César (Max) Monteiro), a tall, thin, middle-aged man with a slow and deliberate way of speaking, often using proverbs and puns to complete his statements. He manages the Paradise ice-cream shop and the association of his name, Deus (God) with paradise does not escape notice. In his paradise he is a maestro of creating wonderful flavours of ice cream and is surrounded by very young female shop assistants who come from the poorer neighbourhoods, who he hand picks and grooms, revealing his obsession with cleanliness. His latest employee is the naïve Rosarinho (Raquel de Ascensão), who is a good student and keen to do well. We get a glimpse of the life she is trying to escape when João visits her neighbourhood and comes across some young boys who offer him photographs of Rosarinho bathing.

As the story develops João’s perversities are slowly revealed. In his lonely flat he pours over his scrapbook of pubic hair specimens; each specimen is neatly stuck into the book with a handwritten epigraph beside it. Things get a little weirder in a scene where Rosarinho dressed in a swimming costume lies on a lilo on a table, behind which João is standing, and mimes swimming motions. As German classical music plays over the scene, João moves his hands over her body and finally touches her. It is a very uncomfortable scene to watch. Making the audience feel uneasy and embarrassed seems to be one of the themes of the film. Later, there is a cringeworthy scene reminiscent of a 1970’s Benny Hill sketch, where all the shop assistants are in a swimming pool with João and as they leave the pool they are each kissed by him while his friend, Tomé (Saraiva Serrano), makes suggestive duck noises and improper comments to each woman. Along with the uncomfortable scenes there is a recurring use of base and crude language, particularly by João and his boss, Judite (Manuela de Freitas), who was possibly a prostitute in the past and, in a revealing moment, mentions having taken him out of the gutter: mirroring what João believes he is doing with the young women in his shop.

After an unlikely romance with Rosarinho, where João possibly rapes her, he is seen making similar flirtatious advances towards another new employee, Virgínia (Anabela Teixeira), and finally towards the 15-year-old daughter of the local butcher (Rui Luís), Joaninha (Cláudia Teixeira). In the final hour of the film, which runs for a long 2 hours 40 minutes, we witness the protracted seduction of Joaninha in his flat late at night. The seduction involves a bath filled with milk, João feeding her with ice cream, which upsets her stomach, and then getting her to sit on a contraption filled with eggs. It is funny and disturbing at the same time.

One of the genuinely funny scenes is a revealing insight into how the Portuguese view themselves as inferior to other nationalities. Judite is planning to go into partnership with a French ice-cream maker (Jean Douchet) and a formal ceremony is held where João has created a new flavour of ice cream, attended by a canon (Carlos Gonçalves) and a local politician, the wonderfully named Dr. Cruel (Mário Barroso), a possible future prime minister. In a scene reminiscent of Fawlty Towers, João makes a long irreverent speech, after which the German national anthem is played instead of the French one and as the Frenchman finally tastes the ice cream, he pronounces it ‘merde’, as João has predicted he would. The possibility that the ice cream may not have been appetising becomes more apparent at the end of the film when we see João pumping the milk Joaninha has bathed in into containers, presumably to be used to make ice cream.

What happens at the end may be anticipated, but nothing else in the film is predictable or expected: it is genre-defying. Despite its title it isn’t a comedy, although there are moments when I laughed through disbelief or embarrassment. Although João is a pervert, this isn’t a psychological thriller. It is a unique piece of cinema, which left me feeling a little unsettled throughout.

Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (2009), Portuguese cinema

Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (2009)

Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura) (2009) is a curious film that breaks several rules of commercial filmmaking: at only an hour long, it is very short; the opening scene is a static shot down a train carriage following a ticket inspector inspecting tickets; while the story is based on a late-nineteenth century short story, it is set in the modern day, but retains a period feel. The lack of regard for the conventions of filmmaking is not totally surprising, bearing in mind the director is the grand seigneur of the Portuguese film industry, Manoel de Oliveira, who was 101 when he directed this film. It is carefully constructed and nothing is superfluous. The opening scene of the film moves from a shot of the train carriage to a close up of two strangers who strike up a conversation when the young man, Marcário (Ricardo Trêpa), feels compelled to tell his sad story to the woman sat next to him (Leonor Silveira). De Oliveira has Marcário narrating part of the story in a way which is not quite conversation and not quite voiceover. The woman responds with suitable interjections from time to time, but her eyes stare blindly past Marcário and she retains a benign smile on her face and the viewer feels slightly disconcerted.

The short story by the nineteenth-century realist writer Eça de Queiroz is a tragic one of Marcário, who falls in love with Luísa (Catarina Wallenstein) whom he sees gazing out of the window of an apartment opposite the office where he works as an accountant for his uncle (Diogo Dória). He is seduced by the fan she languorously waves in front of her face and his obsession with her leads to his downfall. He resigns from his job when his uncle, making reference to poor people (meaning Luísa and her mother (Júlia Buisel)) entering his shop and a large amount of his stock being stolen, refuses to let him marry Luísa. Marcário is nearly penniless when he is offered a job in Cape Verde, where he makes a lot of money doing a job it is implied may not be totally legitimate. He then loses the money to an unscrupulous business man (Rogério Samora), but finally his uncle agrees to give him his job back and he is able to marry Luísa, but  then discovers his uncle was right about her being a thief.

Marcário and Luísa are nineteenth-century characters living lives that aren’t touched by the twenty-first century: Luísa has nothing to do all day except look out of the window waving a fan; Marcário has to ask his uncle for permission to get married; they go a salon to listen to a musician playing a harp (Ana Paula Miranda) and an actor (Luís Miguel Cintra) reciting poetry. Even the interiors of the buildings are from another century, untouched by modern decor and furnishings. De Oliveira skilfully conveys the depressing, claustrophobic life Marcário lives through sets that appear as if they are from a painting. The tiny room that Marcário is forced to move into when he is reduced to penury is reminiscent of a van Gogh room in Rembrandt browns.

Catarina Wallenstein won the Best Actress award at the Portuguese Golden Globe awards for the role of Luísa and the final scene of Luísa sat with her legs apart and her head hanging down is an image that captures all the shame and despair that she is feeling and expresses it far more succinctly than any words could do.

Blood (1989), Portuguese cinema

Blood (1989)

Blood (O Sangue) is director Pedro Costa’s first feature film and, it could be argued, the most conventional of all his films, in the fact that it has a linear narrative and characters played mainly by professional actors. However, it paves the way for his later films, particularly in the themes of abandonment, loss of home and depicting the underclass of society, and in techniques, such as using disembodied voices and leaving the audience confused about what is happening and how much time has passed. Students of film will also enjoy the homage to other directors including Robert Bresson and Nicholas Ray.

The film centres around two brothers, 17-year-old Vicente (Pedro Hestnes) and 10-year-old Nino (Nuno Ferreira), who are abandoned by their father (Canto e Castro) early in the film. The protective role is assumed by a classroom assistant in Nino’s school, Clara (Inês de Medeiros), and the three of them form an unorthodox family which is destroyed when Vicente and Nino’s uncle (Luís Miguel Cintra) takes Nino to live with his family.
The black and white cinematography and the constant threatening presence of two gangsters who want Vicente to repay his father’s gambling debt, give the film a film-noirish quality, but the stylized acting, unnatural dialogue and overlit faces against unrealistic backgrounds make it appear slightly self-conscious. Costa generally uses music sparingly in his films, but in Blood there are unexpected and rather incongruous moments of music. One moment is when the employees at the warehouse storing pirated cassettes, where Vicente works, rush to load all the cassettes into a van after a tip-off that the police are coming. This slapstick moment, accompanied by uncharacteristic comedy music, only lasts a short time, but the scene feels like it should be in a different film. The second moment is when Vicente and Clara go to the funfair. The music and direction is reminiscent of a 1980’s pop video and suggests a last moment of happiness before the inevitable destruction of their lives.
Pedro Hestnes as Vicente convincingly conveys his character’s journey from innocence to experience and the loss of joy that this brings, but for me it is the performance of Nuno Ferreira as Nino that stands out. Ferreira was not a trained child actor, but an orphan at a Catholic school who Costa discovered when he was searching for a boy to play Nino. Nino literally appears to age during the film as he moves from being a child with a father, brother and home at the beginning of the film to taking control of the boat he is seen in at the end of the film; a scene which raises more questions than it answers.

The Portuguese Nun (2009)

The Portuguese Nun (2009)

 

Letters of a Portuguese Nun (published 1669) is a collection of love letters expressing extreme passion and desperation, allegedly written by a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to a French officer with whom she was having a love affair. These letters act as a background to this curious film, The Portuguese Nun (A Religiosa Portuguesa), which centres on a French actress, Julie (Leonor Baldaque), who is in Lisbon to film some scenes for a film she is appearing in based on Letters of a Portuguese Nun. While passing time between scenes Julie wanders around Lisbon, meeting various people, whose lives she touches: a suicidal aristocrat, a young unloved boy, and a persistent young man, and in turn, has her own life touched by a real nun that she becomes obsessed by. The parallels between Julie and the seventeenth-century nun she is playing are apparent, both have loved passionately, but have been rejected and left heartbroken. Written and directed by the French director Eugène Green, who also plays the director of the fictional film, this is a stylized film, with long lingering scenic panoramas of Lisbon, long musical interludes where real fado singers (Camané and Aldina Duarte) sing one or two songs in full, and most controversially, the actors engage with each other and with the audience in a unnatural way: speaking slowly, looking into the distance for an uncomfortable length of time and looking straight into the camera at the audience. The film is divided into five chapters, beginning with the first entitled ‘The Solitary Woman’. Julie is the solitary woman and her loneliness and need to love and be loved is present throughout. The sad lyrics of the fado songs seem to be speaking directly to her; the lyrics, in one, of wanting to be what one is not and, in another, of the great hopes of love being dashed. Julie embarks on an empty one-night stand with her co-star, Martin (Adrien Michaux), and has dinner with a melancholic older man, Henrique (Diogo Dória), who has followed her from a restaurant. She declines his offer of an affair, but despite that he admits that she has given him the strength to continue with his life. While these men benefit from her generosity of character, she does not find happiness. It is in the unlikely form of a rather mature six-year-old boy, Vasco (Francisco Mozos), that she meets in the street, who is left to his own devices by the woman who has taken him in but is unable to cope with an extra mouth to feed, Madalena (Beatriz Batarda), and in the form of a fervently prayerful nun, Sister Joana (Ana Moreira), that she finally discovers what love is. A scene in the chapel, where Julie and Sister Joana finally speak to each other becomes a philosophical discussion about sacred and profane love. From this scene it is a natural progression to the conclusion of the film, where Julie learns to love in a non-passionate way, instead learning about the love a mother has for her child. She also turns down the opportunity of a passionate but meaningless affair with the young handsome reincarnation of King Sebastian (Carloto Cotta), instead leaving the chance of them meeting again to destiny.

This film can appear irritatingly slow and the stylized acting very off-putting at the beginning, but it is worth persevering with, as the story develops into an unlikely love story and Lisbon has never looked lovelier.

Horse Money (2014), Portuguese cinema

Horse Money (2014)

 

The films of Pedro Costa do not necessarily make comfortable viewing; they are definitely ‘art house’ films, which will put some people off. However, they are worth investing time on. Costa is a well-respected director who depicts the lives of the under classes of Lisbon, in particular the immigrants from Cape Verde. Using the same central character, Ventura (played by Ventura), as in Costa’s 2006 film Colossal Youth (Juventude em Marcha), Costa’s 2014 film Horse Money (Carvalo Dinheiro) depicts the immigrant experience as a nightmare in an existential hell and, as with nightmares, it doesn’t work in a linear way and a lot of it doesn’t make sense. At the beginning of the film we see an elderly man in his underpants, Ventura, walking down a dark narrow tunnel. He looks dazed and frightened. At the end of the tunnel he is blinded by a very bright light. We then see a man in a white coat put some clothes on him. Is he in hell or in a hospital? Are the Cape Verdean men who visit him, who all have tales of being exploited and mistreated by their white employers, real or ghosts? It is not clear why Ventura is in the hospital. There is talk of a knife fight with another Cape Verdean man, Joaquim de Brito Varela (Tito Furtado), who keeps reappearing in a bright red shirt, but it is not clear whether the fight took place recently or in the 1970s and who stabbed whom. Varela’s widow, Vitalina (played by Vitalina Varela) visits Ventura in the hospital. Talking throughout in a pained whisper, she has come to attend her husband’s funeral, although Venture insists he is alive. In one scene we hear Vitalina reading out her husband’s death certificate, both their birth certificates and their marriage certificate, but even these certificates bring an element of uncertainty.

One of the more accessible scenes is a musical interlude showing a series of vignettes of the daily lives of Cape Verdean immigrants in the slums of Lisbon, while a famous Cape Verdean song, ‘Alto Cutelo‘ by Os Turbarões is played over the top. The pretty Afro-Latino melody belies the lyrics of hardship experienced by the people who emigrated to Portugal. These vignettes refer back to the Jacob Riis photos shown at the very beginning of the film, of immigrants in the New York slums at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The parallels are clear and nothing needs to be said.

Soldiers from the 1974 revolution appear in flashback scenes, culminating in a long scene set in a lift where Ventura meets a living statue soldier (António Santos), with whom he seems to have had some history. The statue refers back to something that happened 38 years ago, but we don’t get satisfactory answers as to what happened. Their conversation is conveyed through thought rather than speech and the voices of other characters, including Ventura’s wife, add to Ventura’s turmoil. The tension that builds up during this scene climaxes with loud, unexpected chords of organ music (‘Apparition de l’Église Éternelle‘ by Olivier Messiaen) and the film almost enters horror film genre at this point.

Despite the lack of linear plot, the film is a tightly constructed tour de force by Costa. Beautifully shot in almost photographic half-light, with half-images and sparse dialogue, the film is not an easy one to watch, but it stayed with me for a long time afterwards.