Every so often a film comes along that gets a great consensus of positive critical reviews, but which I just can’t connect with, and Miguel Gomes’s austerity epic Arabian Nights is one such. It’s split into three volumes, probably for commercial reasons, and clearly states at the start of each that it’s not an adaptation of the Arabic folk tale collection, but merely uses its structure for a story about the economic vicissitudes of modern Portugal. Over its 6+ hours it builds up an intriguing blend of documentary realism and fabulist mythmaking, flitting between past and present (often with little distinction between eras even in the same scenes) as between fact and fiction. Sheherezade (Crista Alfaiate) is present, particularly in the third volume, but Gomes allows for myriad lengthy diversions, starting with a shipyard strike, but also including first-person testimony by impoverished labourers, and ending with bird-trappers who capture chaffinches and then compete their bird songs against one another. When he does feature a more overtly mythical register (as in the courtroom scene of Volume 2, or the seaside romantic diversions that open Volume 3), costumed actors are integrated into the modern world in sometimes surprising ways. It’s not that I find it to be a bad film, but it often tested my patience, and Gomes’s openness to surprising digressions and random juxtapositions can be both beguiling as much as distancing (there’s a propensity in volume 2 for interpolating naked women into the narrative, as one example). Perhaps if I should see all three volumes together in one long sitting I should find more to pull me in, for surely there’s no shortage of epic ambition to the film, and it’s this — that such a freewheeling dissociative attempt to grapple with urgent political issues got made at all — that’s most inspiring to me in the end.
CREDITS Director Miguel Gomes; Writers Telmo Churro, Gomes and Mariana Ricardo (inspired by the folk tale collection ألف ليلة و ليلة Kitab ʾalf layla wa-layla); Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Crista Alfaiate; Length 382 minutes in three parts: Volume 1, O Inquieto (The Restless One), 125 minutes; Volume 2, O Desolado (The Desolate One), 132 minutes; Volume 3, O Encantado (The Enchanted One), 125 minutes. Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 23 April 2016 [Volume 1] and Saturday 30 April 2016 [Volume 2], and at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 May 2016 [Volume 3].
I don’t imagine much of Portuguese cinema is strange, oblique and dark, but if you’re judging on the basis of what gets released over here, particularly the efforts of Pedro Costa, then you may come to that conclusion. This film fits into that terrain, and is directed by Vítor Gonçalves, on whose first (and only previous) film Costa was an assistant almost 30 years ago. Well, I’ve not seen that film (nor even heard of it), so the narrative of ‘cult filmmaker returns after long gap’ didn’t make much impression on me, but The Invisible Life is certainly not a film that makes anything in the way of compromise with the audience. It is largely the interiorised struggle of one man with his own vanishing aspirations, as he witnesses the lingering death of a colleague (who might as well be himself in 30 years’ time). I can’t say I followed every twist, especially not as I nodded off a few times early in the film (busy week at work is my excuse, even if the dully bureaucratic surrounds of our protagonist here make all other offices seem lively in contrast), but it impressed me with its single-mindedness.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Vítor Gonçalves | Writers Vítor Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista amd Jorge Braz Santos | Cinematographer Leonardo Simões | Starring Filipe Duarte | Length 99 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 23 April 2015
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014 || My Rating good
Portuguese director Pedro Costa makes films which are oblique, to say the least. In scene after narratively-indeterminate scene of Horse Money, faces loom out of an inky blackness like shards of light piercing the viewer’s imperfect understanding of what exactly is going on. But though I can’t say it’s always clear, it does make some kind of poetic sense, as we get Costa’s most frequent collaborator Ventura, an elderly Cape Verdean man with a scraggly white beard and a haunted look, wandering astray around a night-time Lisbon. From what I can gather, he’s been confined to a hospital (or a prison maybe) and has escaped, but to be honest I’m really not sure. He has dialogues with others, including Vitalina Varela (a fellow inmate? a revolutionary?) and the disembodied voice of a militaristic statue while riding in an elevator. Scenes come upon one another as if in a dreamlike fugue, snatched remembrances, dialogues with the past. It’s impressionistic at the very least, and maybe even a bit boring if you don’t attune yourself to its peculiar rhythms, but it’s not easily dismissed.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Pedro Costa | Cinematographers Leonardo Simões and Pedro Costa | Starring Ventura, Vitalina Varela | Length 103 minutes
For this first review in my themed month, I’ve chosen a documentary, the most straightforward way to deal with the art of filmmaking. Needless to say this one by Portuguese director Pedro Costa is hardly straightforward and instead presents an elegiac look at a vanishing art, filled as much with darkness as light in its depiction of two avant-garde filmmakers at work.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: ‘Films about Filmmaking’ Theme || Director Pedro Costa | Cinematographers Pedro Costa and Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet | Length 104 minutes | Seen at Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Thursday 9 January 2014 || My Rating excellent
The majority of my reviews on this blog are of mainstream releases, and I can’t really pretend that the reviews for films I get around to seeing on the arid and obscure nether reaches of auteurist ephemera ever really garner much in the way of readership. Yet growing up in New Zealand there were few destinations to see decent films, so my tastes soon got shaped by the programming at the annual film festival and by my local video shop (Aro Street), and then of course I studied film at university. So I still get a thrill watching stuff that in our digital download age remains properly hard to come by, made by filmmakers with little regard for the norms of narrative cinema or apparent interest in the capricious tastes of audiences. The filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are figures from a past generation of cineastes that spring most easily to mind in this respect, just as Pedro Costa can be numbered among a more updated, modern strand of the same kind of cinematic mentality (though their methods are quite different). So this documentary made by the latter about the former, for an excellent French TV series called Cinéastes de notre temps (therefore not entirely obscure), was already fascinating to me, and seeing it in a cinema with the director present and a full audience reminds me that the cinema exemplified by Straub/Huillet and Costa need not to be quite so abstracted and rarefied a pleasure. Its appeal need not even be restricted to those with an interest in either of these auteurs, for the film which results is about filmmaking as a craft — primarily via a focus on film editing — and about finding that passion for something you love, even as it all feels a little bit elegiac.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Directors/Writers Aki Kaurismäki; Pedro Costa; Víctor Erice; Manoel de Oliveira | Cinematographers Timo Salminen; Pedro Costa and Leonardo Simões; Valentín Álvarez; Francisco Lagrifa Oliveira | Starring Ilkka Koivula, Ventura | Length 80 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 5 January 2014 || My Rating good
The portmanteau film (or ‘anthology’ if you will) is a curious phenomenon, which had perhaps a bit more prominence in the 1960s when packages of trendy young(ish) directors were put together with titles like Paris vu par… (1965) or RoGoPaG (1963). In more recent times, aside perhaps from New York Stories (1989) and the occasional celebration-of-cinema package, they’ve never really attained much prominence, and have been rather restricted to arts-festival-friendly themed offerings such as this one, which was made to coincide with the 2012 European Capital of Culture being awarded to Guimarães in Portugal. This all conspires to make Centro Histórico a little bit obscure (and unlikely to find much of a release in any form anywhere outside its country of origin), though its four directors are all relative heavyweights in the European art film world — and indeed the film was originally scheduled to include a fifth short by Jean-Luc Godard (though his has since been appended to another similar film themed around 3D). It was given a special screening recently at the BFI with two of the directors present (Pedro Costa and Víctor Erice), which I attended.