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.