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.
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.