“A terrible word is the NON”
A film with a stagy, heightened atmosphere in which you plainly see things happening though you somehow come to believe that these things are not happening. It’s a feeling I’ve had before with Oliveira, and with some of my favorites by Ruiz, Bunuel and Resnais, a slippery strangeness which I suppose most critics call surrealism.
Obvious predecessor to A Talking Picture, a movie full of narrated history lessons ending with a moment of violence, history’s revenge on the present. Portuguese soldiers on a troop truck, out defending the colonies, chat about politics. Lt. Cabrita (Luis Miguel Cintra, scary uncle in Pedro Costa’s O Sangue) tells them stories of their country’s past defeats, which are played out for us in full costume using the same actors as in the truck.
Two of my fave soldiers: at left is Manuel, Diogo Doria of Manoel on the Island of Wonders
Flashback, B.C. 130’s: Viriato, a successful defender of Portugal (then Lusitania) against the Romans, an icon of Portuguese independence, killed by his own Roman-bribed men while he slept.
Flashback, early 1470’s: Portugal fights Spain on two fronts. King Afonso V is defeated in a chaotic battle, while his son Prince John fought and won a battle that was apparently tactically brilliant but seemed strange to me. So, “There were neither victors nor vanquished.” Symbol of the battle was “The Mangled Man, who, in his chivalrous ardour, refuses to let the nation’s symbol fall” – a flag-bearer who kept holding the flag after having both hands cut off by the enemy. “King Afonso V’s image is belittled compared to The Mangled Man’s, whose courage the king himself didn’t deserve.”
Flashback, late 1470’s: John of the previous battle is now king, and his son Afonso is married to daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, so the children would have united the Iberian kingdoms, had Afonso not died during a horse race. Zodiac-like, this episode adds up the details of the suspicious/tragic event without drawing clear conclusions.
Time out for Cabrita to speak of Portugal’s discoveries and art, how they are more meaningful than any military achievements. This features a song, baby angels, much nudity, and Leonor Silveira.
Flashback, 1578, Alcazar-Quibir, the War of the Three Kings, a disastrous battle fought in northern Morocco. Cintra/Cabrita plays Alexandre Moreira, head of the adventurers’ regiment, who attacked first, to no avail. Three kings were killed, the nobility slaughtered, the army defeated, and Portugal was taken over by the Spanish government for the next sixty years.
The next day, out on patrol, they’re caught in Portugal’s latest military defeat – Cabrita is shot, taken to a military hospital populated by mutilated men. He dies in the hospital on April 25, 1974, the day of the Carnation Revolution which ended the colonial war.
Acquarello: “By juxtaposing history-based fiction with historical non-fiction, Oliveira illustrates the process of mythologization, where history becomes refracted and idealized in times of crisis and upheaval. However, rather than engendering a romanticism for the past glory, Oliveira dismantles the myth of conquest, reframing history as an elusive (and delusive) quest for fleeting victories and unsustainable empires.”
Oliveira quoted and took inspiration from Portuguese poet Camoes and his Lusiades. When asked to think back on the film: “The NON. . . you don’t have to go back, because the NON goes forward many years, therefore we are late compared to the NON.”