Postby CAP » Wed May 22, 2013 3:20 pm

Portuguese art-house triumph from last year I finally catch up with, fleeing more pressing duties, as usual. Inevitably, following the hype, I was disappointed. Just what this has to do with Murnau’s silent classic of the same name, I’ve yet to fathom. Both are shot in black and white and old-school Academy screen ratio, but this hardly seems enough. Still, this is the debut of a young director so I try to be forgiving. You know me, Mr. Nice Guy.

The movie falls into three distinct sections, a brief prologue where a stereotypical 19th century explorer treks through African wilderness with native bearers, spurred on, according to the voice-over by writer/director Miguel Gomes, by heartbreak, eventually leading to suicide and engendering folk myth concerning moonlight trysts between a crocodile and the ghost of a young white woman...

Notice I didn’t say anything there?

The story proper is then divided into a contemporary section set in Lisbon – ‘Paradise Lost’ – and a section set in the early 60s on Cape Verde – ‘Paradise Found’. So a deeply mythic or poetic structure is flagged from the outset. In Lisbon, the story centres on a lonely pensioner, Pilar, played by Teresa Madruga (mentally I pencil this name in, should I be asked for casting suggestions for a Paula Rego bio-pic). Pilar lives alone, maybe she’s a widow, I might have missed that bit, and mostly spends her time being a good neighbour. She does coffee with this old guy who’s a gestural abstraction tragic. That’s real charity. They go to movies where he nods off while she blubbers at on-screen tragedy. Why does that scene make me uncomfortable? Pilar also has a lot of time for her slightly senile neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral). Actually, they don’t look that much different in age to me, except that one has white hair, but I’m not very good with ages. Anyway it’s Aurora that has the back story that reaches back to Africa, and an African maid, Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso) who is now virtually her carer. Oh the irony. Aurora is the wild colonial gel come home to roost, significantly now shunned by her well-to-do daughter. Aurora complains about inadequate medication to Pilar, accuses Santa of cruel neglect and Pilar is politely told to mind her own business - by the help. But that’s hard, given Pilar’s situation. Oh the ignominy of this Post Colonial Portugal! Aurora goes downhill fast and makes a dying request for Pilar to find her old beau, one Gian-Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo). She eventually locates him in time for him to attend the funeral. After the funeral he’s invited back for refreshments and it’s there he embarks on his story that ushers in the Paradise Found section.

We then get loads more of the director’s voice-overs filling us in on Aurora’s privileged upbringing – the old Colonial Africa as Decadent Playground for Upper Class Surplus riff. We’ve been here in French and British costumes often enough. The Portuguese take concentrates on droll poetry. The acting grows markedly more stilted or stylised, not so much like a silent movie – although in effect this is how it’s treated, even the sound effects are ruthlessly filtered and orchestrated – but more like people hamming it up for a home movie, being painfully self-conscious. It certainly jolts with the first section. Aurora becomes a crack shot, schooled by her father, your typical game-hunting squire. She’s an outdoors kinda gal. She marries an awfully nice young man of suitable wealth who gives her a baby crocodile as a cute token of his esteem. *CUE SYMBOL*. But life on the plantation soon gets to be a drag for Aurora and her circle. When cruising philanderer Gian-Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta) shows up in an improbable Hollies cover band (or something similar), she’s ready for a little backdoor action. But right about then she also falls pregnant to her husband. :roll: It’s a busy time. Inevitably, she and Gian-Luca are found out (you just can’t trust the help!) and try to flee. Unfortunately Gian-Luca’s best friend Mario (Manuel Mesquita) the lead singer and designated stud takes the whole thing rather badly. He pursues them somehow and confronts Gian-Luca in a butch-off. Hmmm. Gian-Luca, not to put too finer point on it, is a wuss of the first order. He looks like a male model, acts like one. So does Mario. What a tussle! Aurora guns down Mario to settle the matter. Who knew the lady was packing heat? Well this is Africa. Gian Luca takes the fall for her and alerts the authorities. In spite of appearances, he is a good egg. Aurora’s husband puts two and two together and banishes her. Years later Gian-Luca drifts back to Lisbon and writes to Aurora, but she’s over him by then. That was probably while her daughter was still speaking to her. Life, eh?

So yeah, shag-happy rich people in colonial luxury kill one another with the odd shot of kindness on the rocks. Boo hoo. And just in case you missed the Post-Colonial subtext, Miguel hammers it home in closing remarks, how the shooting of Mario is claimed by a local liberation movement and accelerates independence for the natives. See, it’s all part of the same pattern dude. That didn’t bother me so much as not getting back to Pilar, who was, after all the focus of the Paradise Lost section, and while it was interesting to see how she was side-lined by the Post Colonial standoff, the vacuum at the centre of her life, the springboard for all her ‘good’ works went unexamined and nags away at the rest of the story for me. That too has to be Portugal. Maybe that’s the bit where the football coaches come from?

The other thing that came to mind, after musing on Spring Breakers, is a sort of Wes Anderson approach to movie making – or the heavy use of voice-overs and a comic-strip approach to storyboarding. Gomes doesn’t quite go there, but the love of lateral tracking shots, very deliberate gestures and poses to the characters, symbols like the crocodile, archetypal or mythic roles and costumes, even the choice of black and white in Academy ratio, all firmly place him on that side of movie making (the opposite of Harmony Korinne). And as with Anderson, I think the trade-off is in depth to characters. This doesn’t matter where the work is a comedy, but in Tabu Gomes is aiming for a weight to the story that I think his style finally denies. We don’t really care about Aurora or Gian-Luca because they were only ever cardboard characters, ciphers of some elaborate scheme, once we enter the Paradise Found section. This may be something Gomes will subsequently correct – he may become more of an Orson Welles type, synching performance with image much more effectively. But for the moment I’d be remiss in not registering some small disappointment.

Give it 7 :|
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