The Wreckages of European Civilization


(versão em português aqui)

Rita Azevedo Gomes’ The Portuguese Woman is now screening on Mubi in most territories, it is very possible the best movie that will get any sort of release in these streaming-only days and I’m taken the opportunity to publish here the article I wrote for Cinetica after it get its first Brazilian screenings around a year ago.

The Portuguese Woman is Rita Azevedo Gomes’ seventh feature, a filmmaker on the frontlines of Portuguese cinema who despite three decades of rich production, has only start receiving deserved attention in the last few years. Her new film played recently at Olhar de Cinema in Curitiba and later in a small retrospective of her work in São Paulo. Gomes cinema brings with it some traditional elements of Portuguese cinema, above all in its relationship with literature and aristocracy, with some taste for nostalgic decadentism of the sebastianista variety.

Because of that, it is usual to see comparisons with Manoel de Oliveira’s work, which Gomes, with reason, refutes. Oliveira was the last repository of European civilization, of an idea of world that had disappeared long before he start filming regularly in the 1970s. This disarrangement and the projection his movies allowed is a major part of what made them so seductive, been a little like Howard Hawks (his American aristrocat counter point), the idealist high of an idea of being in the world that lapsed around the time of the first world war and beautiful exactly because staged out of its time. In Rita Azevedo Gomes movies, men’s passions are more destructive and the world around it more entrancing indomitable. The space is destructive, the black clouds that could sometimes be drawn now set the tone. The functions of décor are another, less illustrative but active, less the space that men fight among themselves, but the one they struggle against. Rita Azevedo Gomes’ world consumes men. One might just think about her likely greatest film Fragile as the World (2001), in which the world takes the main couple that just wishes for one more instant for themselves and the permanence is only possíble through the filmmaker’s generous intervation. One is not in the terrain of aristocracy anymore, but its ruins, about what is left after the remains of the colonial power are just wreckage. It is no accident that The Portuguese Woman is set in a castle in ruins. Left half made, because money ended and the bank loans only allow to make more war (which is the reason one runs out of money in the first place).

The film is adapted from a novella by Robert Musil, The Portuguese Lady, which The Portuguese Woman fulfills with a very Portuguese feeling. It is essential for this the role played by Augustina Bessa-Luís who wrote the dialogue. If there is any possible parallel between this film and Oliveira’s work, it is not about what he brought to them, but the important role the writer played as his occasional creative partner. Her function here as a bridge between Musil and Gomes brings to mind the one she played by turning Madame Bovary into Abraham Valley, this translation of foreign gaze into something more concrete from the point of view of Portuguese artist. To Musil’s protestant gaze, one opposes a turbulent Catholicism. It is not going to be the Portuguese lady who will be a Foreigner in the border between Italy and Austria, but that space that will be foreign in front of her eyes. It is a movie about the off-screen that is less about the war being fought than of a Portugal that remains inaccessible, sorrow and hope. When presenting the screening at Olhar de Cinema, Rita Azevedo Gomes dedicated it to the recente deceased Bessa-Luís and talked about how the writer did the adaptation around ten years ago, a little before the stroke that limit her through the last decade of her life, and when finally returning to the script when she had conditions to film it got surprised by much preferring Bessa-Luís version to the original novella. A preference that says a lot about the movie’s virtues.

The Portuguese Woman is a Portuguese film. Fatalist, taken by the sign of defeat. One negotiates with the world the whole time, a great struggle in which it would be a good day if things ended up in a draw. The Portuguese woman is a noblewoman recently married with a decadent and foolish Italian aristocrat. Honeymoon’s finished, said guy goes back to war and for there he remains for most of the next eleven years. He only returns to the castle hurt and after reinforcements. The Portuguese Woman is a war film in which one is in the rear of the official battle. About the men’s war (“between labor and war one must chose, both serve to distract human wrath”) one sees only one remarkable shot. The nobles’ entourage arrives at the battlefield late and is received there by the corpses of the dead soldiers. Gomes camera registers that battlefield wreckage, epitaph of a war that, apart these very moment, it consecrates to beyond the frame. It is of a great economy of resources and strong dramatic expression. The only other war scene we see is the peace negotiation. Melancholic negotiation, that arrives through a sick man delirium, because none of the nobles there seem very happy about returning home. “Do you know what is peace? With it comes corruption and vice”: the terrible and bitter line comes from the adversary of the Portuguese’s husband and resonates through the film’s last act, the creed that The Portuguese Woman needs to disavow. A good part of its final 50 minutes are about this difficult of living in a peace that only reveals how much men are foolish and useless, desperate to prove their virility.

The true war the one that is Worth been fought is this later one, between the Portuguese woman and those around her, between men and women, between men and the landscape. So the recurrence of those very composed shots of Clara Riedenstein always in rest in that uninviting place. The harsh and dry nature that remains always there. The harshness of the landscape receives the rich treatment of the movie’s colors. It lefts the infertility of European civilization towards art’s domain. One has to highlight the great care of Acácio de Almeida’s cinematography. The Portuguese woman cunning is that, much like the film that borrows her name, she is much more worried with the hostile nature than the palace intrigue, dedicate her time to the little wolf she adopts far more than the gossip about her intruding figure. The wolf, by consequence, has far more screen time than her children which are little more than confirmation of her social contract.

The animals are a constant – the wolf, the cat – as is the idea of the Portuguese woman as a witch for relating to them (“cats have a philosopher’s soul”). The film moves through this man/nature/animal tripod with resourcefulness. There is the figure of a cliff around which the castle was build that remains the materialization of this insurmountable space and in a key late scene, the husband taken by jealousy and still sick climb it like a miniature mix of Eyes Wide Shut and Jauja, that only reinforces the narcissism and absurd humor of the situation. The military war flows into the private one of the troubling marriage kept suspended for eleven years: “I will have strength and you will have children”, the sick husband repeats while trying to keep answering in a virile way to subtle affirmations of power from his wife.

Beyond the animals, the figures whom Gomes more frequently punctuate the Portuguese woman trajectory are two other women. There’s the image of Ingrid Caven, with whom it starts and closes and who is returned time and again always in the margins, there to give testimony, but also to add a musical lyricism. An image that is always iconic, belonging to hystory of movies, ready to offer an additional commentary. At the other extreme, there is the figure of Rita Durão, with whom Gomes worked before in A Coleção Invisível and A Woman’s Revenge, as a Moor slave always around Riedenstein. Durão says very little throughout the film, but listens to a lot and sees. Always on screen, always there to bring Portugal’s memory to surface, there is something very particular about this movie about aristocracy that the country’s memories start with the presence of the slave. It is to her that the film return from time to time, every time the narrative is taken by unlikely incidents or when the Portuguese woman needs a moment of intimacy. It is those two plebeian women’s gaze that unveil the action.

One never see Portugal, but it is to Portugal that it always returns. The sea is called on many times in contrast with the dry north Italian landscape. The Portuguese sea: the conqueror adventures, the promise of a renewal, of an eternal return. The Portuguese Woman and the portuguese woman both stages a displacement inward, to the entrails of an aristocracy who dreams of futile wars. As a counter point, Portugal remains as a return, longing and defeat. A world that needs to be recaptured. If there is in Portuguese cinema a frequent strong sense of history, here it remains corroded, in the wreckages, like the post-battle tableau vivant it eternized earlier.

– “Remember the sea?
– The sea and everything.”

It is this everything that, in some way, Rita Azevedo Gomes struggles to tell us.

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