“Men were vulgar. They wanted to forget their history. Only funerals seemed true, as they passed streets of dirty houses, like tombs for the living.”
Almost an anthology film – three stories with no overlapping characters, set maybe in the 1920’s or 30’s. An adaptation of three separate works – a fact I didn’t catch in the opening credits. Very strange, but as magnetic and thrilling as Non.
A burst of music over the opening, then the first line, from a father to his son, is “Kill yourself.” Both father (Jose Pinto of Abraham’s Valley) and son (Luis Miguel Cintra, star of Non) are the most famous scientists of their respective generation. But the father is feeling washed-up and forgotten, and urges his son to die at the height of his fame.
Time out for a picnic with Marta (Isabel Ruth of The Uncertainty Principle), an old student/flame of the father’s, then back to the apartment. The son won’t be convinced, refuses to swallow cyanide, but agrees to fix his father’s curtain rod over the back door, at which time his dad pushes him over the balcony, then jumps after, yelling about immortality.
I’d noted that the movie felt like theater, the old man playing towards an imagined crowd instead of his son, in a single location except for the cutaways to the picnic and a downstairs neighbor’s place as the men fell to their deaths – and it was theater after all. A half hour into the movie, a curtain raises, and we begin to follow a couple groups of friends who have been watching the play, never to return to the scientist family.
Square-jawed Diogo Doria of Non and his friend David Cardoso are paying as much attention to a pair of courtesans/prostitutes in another box as to the play. Cardoso meets the girls and reports back, having claimed Gabi (Rita Blanco) as his own, and later, Doria starts spending much time with Suzy (the ever-present Leonor Silveira), though he remains rational when he sees her out with other men.
All along, I’m suspicious that this will be another play, even though the atmosphere has changed – it’s more realistic, mostly shot in long takes (as was the first episode), but still held at a strange remove, with ellipses of undetermined lengths between scenes.
Suzy: “I have wealthy lovers, dresses by the best seamstresses, everything, except happiness.” Eventually she’s seeing Doria less often, though they exchange letters. In the end, Suzy has died in hospital during an operation (“she said: it’s a small thing”), but he keeps writing the letters. Cardoso stops by to visit his pathetic friend, and tells him a story.
Mother of the River
Young Fisalina (Leonor Baldaque, star of The Portuguese Nun) is in love with Ricardo Trepa (who played her husband in Christopher Columbus, The Enigma). But it’s not that simple: there are customs, rules, meddling parents and a small, stifling village. So she sneaks off to see the Mother of the River (Irene Papas, greek singer in A Talking Picture, also star of Z). “I love a boy with pretty teeth. I do not know how to marry him… curse me, but set me free.” So the mother takes Fisalina through a candlelit cavern to the edge of the water.
The next day Fisalina notices her fingertips are golden. She hides them from everyone, but no longer feels urgent towards her boy, and seems at peace with the village. During a candlelight festival, the light shines off her fingers and she is discovered, a witch! “Fisalina, reckless, fated, has chosen to live beside the deep water, where she will wait a thousand years before swapping lives with someone else.”
Oliveira has returned to these writers: his A Caixa was a play by Prista Monteiro (The Immortals), and he’s done at least four major films based on stories by Agustina Bessa-Luis (Mother of the River).
D. Kehr says the segments are “all centered on themes of death and eternity and presented sequentially as social comedy, existential tragedy and lyrical epic,” but Rosenbaum, more correctly I think, says it’s “the theme of existential identity” that unites the stories.