Although Julio Bressane, a key figure of the Brazilian udigrudi movement since 1967, and Joao Pedro Rodrigues, one of Portugal’s most talented directors, are a generation apart, one can be surprised by the vicinity of their discourse, or at least how their respective new films, Sentimental Education and The King’s Body, gravitate to common themes and topics within their respective films presented at Locarno this year. Both of them seem to be interested in building bridges between different eras. The two Portuguese-speaking directors set their movies in the 21st century, but Bressane calls in Ancient Greece’s mythology while Rodrigues revives the majestic medieval figure, Dom Afonso Henriques. This study on anachronism fuels their work and allows them to shed a new light upon our present time. The question that comes to mind when one’s watches their films is: “How are myth or history engraved in our contemporary society?”
In Sentimental Education, Bressane re-interprets the myth of Endymion. The director reminds us at the beginning that in Greek mythology, Endymion stands as a handsome shepherd. Struck by his beauty, the moon decides to descend on earth to give him a divine kiss. This fatal embrace will provoke the wrath of Zeus who will then plunge the young shepherd into an eternal sleep. In Bressane’s film, the myth serves as the starting point of a fantasized dialogue between a mature woman and a young man. Here Aurea, the avatar of the moon, shares with her attentive listener her passion for literature, writing, dance, music, and cinema. The myth sets a frame; it allows us to immerse ourselves into fiction and to listen, like the young ephebe, to what Aurea has to say.
She speaks about the past, when she used to write and read. She depicts these two activities as archaic disciplines, as if they were out of step with contemporary society. As she evokes and traverses multiple art forms, she imposes a different pace, which contrasts with the hectic tempo of the exterior world. To underline this countertempo Bressane plays a scene backwards, as if Aurea’s contemplation of the past would inevitably make her walk counterclockwise. Here, Bressane ponders the topicality of artistic disciplines, especially literature. He seems to ask us if literature ‘s doomed to be regarded as a past art form.
If Bressane uses the myth to build his discourse, Rodrigues, in The King’s Body, questions Portugal’s relationship to its history through the figure of Dom Afonso Henriques, the first self-proclaimed king of Portugal, known as the nation’s founder. The process seems simple in appearance. In front of a green screen, on which images of the king’s statue are being projected, twenty-four muscled men succeed each other, while they are asked to undress and to read out loud the accounts of Dom Afonso Henriques’ life (from his feat of strength to his final days). Interspersing the readings, Joao Pedro Rodrigues tests these well-built men about Portugal’s history and gradually encourages them to speak about themselves. Only a few of them are able to say who Dom Afonso Henriques was, most of them being more preoccupied with the country’s current economic crisis. As a matter of fact, the past stumbles upon the present’s amnesia. Throughout these men’s responses, Rodrigues asks us implicitly what makes a nation’s identity. In other words, what does Portugal’s history mean nowadays?
As they speak, Joao Pedro Rodrigues superposes the flesh of the sculpted bodies over the roughness of the statue’s stone. While their scars and strength echo the king’s physical traits, their personal stories mingle with the great History. Overall, the shrewd mise en scene challenges our representation of the hero. And we are lead to ask ourselves if our current representation of the alpha male equal or resemble the one from the medieval age.
Instead of speaking of a sentimental education we could say that Rodrigues and Bressane propose an education of our collective memory. Although they both resort to anachronism, their way of materializing it is different. Rodrigues brings back the ancestral figure of king Dom Afonso Henriques through the bodies of his interlocutors — the king is being incarnated once again — while Bressane makes use of the myth to introduce a reflection upon the arts, and their relevance in our frantic environment.