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.