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.

Tabu (2012)

Tabu (2012)


Tabu (2012) is a multi-layered film which is distinctly different to director Miguel Gomes’ previous film, the charming docu-drama Our Beloved Month of August (Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto) (2008). In Tabu the tone is darker as Gomes focuses on the past and the present and how they are intertwined. From the opening scene, which acts as a prologue, themes and images which will appear later in the film are introduced. A nineteenth-century explorer (Telmo Churro) is shown walking through somewhere in Africa. Over this section a narrator (Gomes) tells the sad story of this melancholic, recently widowed explorer who jumps into a crocodile-infested river to an early death. The film then unexpectedly moves into the present day in a section entitled ‘Paradise Lost’. The story in this part of the film focuses on three women who live in a claustrophobic block of flats in Lisbon: Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged women who lives alone, her demanding and cantankerous elderly neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral) and Aurora’s African maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso). Gomes expertly conveys the sense of loneliness through the black and white photography, the miserable weather and joyless lives the three women lead. The very religious Pilar’s life is spent fighting for causes and being on call when Aurora has a crisis, such as when she gambles her allowance away at the casino. It is also Pilar that Aurora confides in when she says that Santa has been sent by the Devil as a punishment for something terrible she did in the past.

It is this past that is depicted in Part Two of the film, ‘Paradise’. Many of the themes that have been presented in Part One are repeated in Part Two. Set in the 1960s, this part of the film is filmed in grainy black and white and bravely Gomes chooses not to have any dialogue. It is narrated by Gomes himself, in the character of Gian Luca Ventura, an old man (Henrique Espírito Santo) who appears at the end of Part One. We learn that the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) led a privileged but lonely life growing up in one of the Portuguese African colonies (possibly Mozambique). Even when she marries, her isolation continues as her husband (Ivo Müller) is away a lot. The impractical presents he buys her, such as a baby crocodile, highlight her lonely existence. Aurora’s disregard of the danger of the crocodile is just one example of her doing whatever she with no awareness of the consequences, but as we know from Part One, she is later punished for her reckless behaviour.

It is no surprise that she embarks on a passionate affair with her handsome, charming neighbour, Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta). Their affair is set against a background of rising tension among the native Africans who are demanding independence, although this doesn’t really touch the lives of the white colonials, who continue with their cocktail and garden party lifestyle. Also, in the background as a constant threatening presence is the eponymous Mount Tabu. One of the characters has had a near-death experience on the mountain and it acts as a symbol of how precarious the colonials’ lives are and, on a more personal level, how precarious the relationship between Aurora and Gian Luca is.

As with Our Beloved Month of August, music plays an important part in the film. The fact that Gian Luca plays the drums in his friend Mário’s (Manuel Mesquita) band allows Gomes to put the music to the forefront and as with music of Our Beloved Month of August, it is pop music (this time from the 1960s) that acts as the musical soundtrack. Gomes introduces in-jokes, such as Mário’s Band in the 1960s performing the song ‘Baby I Love You’, where the band is shown miming to the Ramones’ 1980 version of the song. In Part One we see Pilar crying while listening to the 1960’s song ‘Tú Serás Mi Baby’ (‘Be My Baby’ sung in Spanish). We then realise she is watching a film while her male friend dozes next to her oblivious to her tears, but her tears seem to be much more than just an emotional response to a film. In a parallel scene in Part Two we see a distraught Aurora crying while listening to the same song, this is made more poignant due to the fact that she is pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want. Is this the film that Pilar was watching and is Gomes therefore creating a film within a film?

Tabu is a carefully constructed film and is beautifully acted by the main actors. Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta, in particular, portray their characters convincingly, despite not having any dialogue to help them. There is a sense of watching two separate films rather than one unified one, as the two halves are very different, but they complement and inform each other on many levels. It deservedly won several awards, including Best Film at various international film festivals.

Our Beloved Month of August (2008), Portuguese cinema

Our Beloved Month of August (2008)


Our Beloved Month of August (Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto) is director Miguel Gomes’ celebration of life in rural Portugal during the month of August. Part documentary-style and part fictional narrative, it is a film divided into two halves. The first half appears to be a documentary, showing scenes of rural life in central Portugal, but in true Gomes style things are not always as they appear, and people who may or may not be real tell anecdotes which may or may not be true. Summer in this region is depicted through unrelated scenes showing local bands playing popular Portuguese songs in the village squares, the fire brigade preparing for the inevitable forest fires, a gathering of motorcycle groups at a campsite, and a religious procession. But these scenes are interrupted by a sub-plot where a film crew, led by a director (played by Miguel Gomes), is making a film in the area. Is the film we have started watching part of it? Maybe not, as the director admits to his producer that he hasn’t started filming yet. He then describes the film he wants to make, which leads neatly into the second half of the film.

This second half is a more conventional plot-driven narrative, concerning members of one of the bands that play in the village squares on summer nights, in particular, a teenage girl, Tânia (Sónia Bandeira), her father, Domingos (Joaquim Carvalho), and the girl’s cousin, Hélder (Fábio Oliveira). The plot focuses on the developing love between Tânia and Hélder, but there is a counter love story concerning Domingos and Tânia’s mother, who left Domingos several years ago. As a result Domingos is over-protective of his daughter, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother when she was younger, and the story takes on a dark tone for a moment.

In the second half of the film real people from the first half appear as characters in the fictional story. As in all of Gomes’ films, there are some wonderful comic moments, such as an overheard exchange between two villagers who both have a role in the film. Songs and radios programmes which appear in the documentary section, become part of the narrative in the main story. The lyrics of the pop songs reflect what is happening in the lives of the on-screen characters. The title of the film is bitter-sweet when we understand the lyrics of the eponymous song ‘Meu Querido Mês de Agosto‘: “Meu querido mês de agosto / Por ti levo o ano inteiro a sonhar / Trago sorrisos no rosto … / Porque sei que vou voltar” (“My beloved month of August / I dream of you throughout the year / I’ve got a smile on my face … / Because I know I’ll return”). Many of the villagers have left their villages to find work in the city or abroad, such as Hélder’s family who are living in France. For many migrant Portuguese the month of August is when they return to their villages and it suggests that for them the rural idyll suggested in the documentary part of the film is another fiction.

The film deservedly won Miguel Gomes several international awards, including best film and best screenplay. This is an evocative, charming film that stayed with me for a long time after it finished.