As Mil e uma Noites (Arabian Nights, 2015)

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.

Arabian Nights Volume 1 film posterArabian Nights Volume 2 film posterArabian Nights Volume 3 film posterCREDITS
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].

A Vida Invisível (The Invisible Life, 2013)

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.

The Invisible Life film posterCREDITS
Director Vítor Gonçalves; Writers Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista and Jorge Braz Santos; Cinematographer Leonardo Simões; Starring Filipe Duarte; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 23 April 2015.

Cavalo Dinheiro (Horse Money, 2014)

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.

Horse Money film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Leonardo Simões and Costa; Starring Ventura, Vitalina Varela; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014.

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001)

Films About FilmmakingFor 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.


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.

As mentioned above, the primary location for the film is an editing suite, where Straub and Huillet are working on their 1999 film Sicilia! (which I didn’t see until after I’d watched this documentary). Huillet sits at the editing booth, while Straub offers his opinions to her as they (and we the audience) look at the film’s scenes, replaying small moments over and over again and noting the tiniest of details of gesture, eye movement, extraneous detail, even sound (for such are the concerns of the editor). Straub also paces around, holding forth about various subjects related to their own work practice and to film history, addressing his comments to an unseen and unheard interlocutor (not always Huillet, and never directly to Costa, but perhaps just to himself, such is his manic energy). As such, much of the film takes place in the perilous darkness, lit only sporadically by the editor’s lamp (which flicks on only when the footage is not playing on screen), or the light from the outside corridor when Straub pops out — which happens frequently, incessantly — while Huillet is cutting the film.

If this insight into their methods has its own fascination, what’s striking is how out of time it seems, even for 1998 when they were making their film, as Huillet physically marks and cuts the lengths of film that she runs through spools, watching the footage on a small monitor accompanied by the loud mechanical whirr of the machinery. But it also has a sort of purity given the very spare images that they have filmed — all the ones we see are a series of dialogues between two people, echoing perhaps the dynamic in this very documentary — and makes the viewer think even more about the choices they make as editors about where exactly to transition between one shot and the next. It also occasions some comparison with Costa’s own methods, who unlike Straub and Huillet is not restricted to a strip of film with its image and soundtrack combined — indeed, the older filmmakers spend a lot of time contemplating where to cut based on extraneous noises that crop up, such as a car door slamming in the background, which would seem bizarre to a modern editor for whom the soundtrack is quite separate from the image. And so Costa has some of the cranky monologues being delivered by Huillet matched with the footage they’re looking at — or maybe not looking at, given that we only hear their voices much of the time (and it would appear, from what I’ve subsequently read, that in fact Straub’s comments are being addressed to unseen students) — meaning that the final film is every bit as much a construction as the one Straub and Huillet are working on.

If as a film this makes it sound particularly slow and difficult to watch, then it is at least leavened by humour, as the two older filmmakers (a married couple) bicker incessantly and amusingly at each other’s contributions. Or rather, it is Huillet who is more often heard grumpily telling off Straub for his meandering monologues and for some of his interventions to the editing discussion. However, the rhythms of the film are certainly slower than most, as the faces of the filmmakers only dimly stand out from the gloom of their editing room, accompanied periodically by the deliberately-paced drama of their film. But for those with the patience, what results is a beautiful work. In some senses, it’s a film about love in one’s declining years (Huillet died five years after this film was released), whether that be love between two people or a love for one’s métier, in this case filmmaking. It’s an elegy for what’s been lost — the craft of Huillet on her archaic apparatus, or the strangely spectral images seemingly from another era as projected on the editing machine — and for its power to still affect us. But it’s the single-minded focus on the craft of making a film that shines through most of all, as Straub and Huillet argue over the exact frame where a gesture or an emotion begins in their actors, or Straub angrily sounds off about filmmakers who have lost his respect (Woody Allen and John Cassavetes are mentioned).

It’s a curious documentary then, but a beautiful one, that captures something of the essence of cinema itself through its blend of an inky dark canvas punctured by flashes of light, manipulated film footage, and the absolute focus of its filmmakers. It may not make you appreciate Straub and Huillet’s films any more, but it makes you respect their earnest devotion to their art.

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? film posterCREDITS
Director Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 9 January 2014.

Centro Histórico (2012)

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.

As curios go, it certainly has its moments. The first short, “O Tasqueiro” (Tavern Man) by deadpan Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (who apparently has a home in Portugal), is probably the most accessible. It’s a slight and wordless sketch following the proprietor of a struggling tavern in the historical city centre, whose hangdog face (that of actor Ilkka Koivula) perfectly conveys his mounting troubles in attracting the passing trade. The tavern here is reminiscent of the restaurant opened in the same director’s Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds, 1996) — and there’s a similar, very lugubrious, comedic undertone to the style.

The film is bookended by another wryly comedic short piece by veteran director Manoel de Oliveira — and when I say veteran, I do of course mean that: he’s the only living director whose career started in the silent era. His film, “O Conquistador, Conquistado” (The Conqueror, Conquered), follows a tour group as they trek through the historic centre of Guimarães, looking up at the statue of Alfonso I, the first King of Portugal. It comes at the end of Centro Histórico but comprises something of an introduction to the city itself, which for various reasons is considered the birthplace of Portuguese nationality.

One of the themes that Oliveira’s film deals with — the wayward travails of historical consciousness and memory — is touched upon by the other two shorts, both of which are significantly longer. That by Spanish director Víctor Erice, “Vidros Partidos” (Broken Windows), is the more seemingly straightforward (deceptively so, one might say), presenting itself as a documentary encounter with people whose lives had been shaped by a textile mill just outside the city, closed 10 years earlier. Erice films the interviews in its former canteen, from slightly below eye level, and with the interviewee’s heads loomed over by a huge reproduction of a vintage photo of the factory’s workers sitting down for lunch. It gradually becomes clear that these personal testimonies are scripted, drawing into question quite what role memory and local history plays in their lives.

Finally, there’s Pedro Costa’s rather oblique piece, “Lamento da Vida Jovem” (Sweet Exorcist), most of which is taken up by his regular actor Ventura (who hails from the Portuguese colony of Cape Verde) trapped after a hillside pursuit in an elevator, addressing offscreen voices ostensibly coming from the statue of a soldier (another actor, albeit one painted bronze and who holds an ever-shifting statuesque pose). It’s all rather strange and surreal, and is apparently a shorter piece from a new feature film Costa is working on. However, the dialogue again touches on the troubling echoes of national history, specifically as filtered through immigration and race. I couldn’t possibly try to sum it up any more accurately, as it’s dense with references which pass over my head, and I can only hope that seeing it again in its feature context will bring it to greater life.

For what it’s doing, this compilation is successful, but I can’t deny that the portmanteau film as a form remains a rarefied pleasure, which to me feels like a sort of ‘arthouse cinema 101’ — a taster to the styles of various established world directors. If you have a chance to see it, or even any of its individual short films, you may find something to your taste, but I can’t help think that it’s a drawback of the form that, even at its best, such a film cannot deliver the feeling of satisfaction that a good feature film can.

Centro Histórico film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Aki Kaurismäki; Pedro Costa; Víctor Erice; Manoel de Oliveira; Cinematographers Timo Salminen; 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.