Portuguese cinema falls into two camps: film that looks out on the world and sees strife, hardship, resilience, and the broken threads of history, and film that looks inward at itself, to dwell upon past titans and the meta-narratives of the medium. Some, of course, attempt to reside in both camps — such as critics’ darling Miguel Gomes, whose six-hour opus “Arabian Nights” will be unveiled in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes later this month.
These two strands, though, find their fitting allegories in the dual character of Portugal’s jagged capital: Lisbon, flattened in 1755 by a deadly earthquake, boasts both a labyrinth of hilly streets and longer, more even thoroughfares. Its centre seems to have been born out of the trade activity that emerged from the Tagus — the broad river that cuts the city in two — only to fold back in upon itself, like a dog overly keen to curl up and see to its own cleanliness. To the northeast, meanwhile, between Marquês de Pombal and Campo Grande, things open out a bit, into something resembling a grid of wider roads that give the impression, at least, of wanting to extend outward and provide escape.
I went to Lisbon to serve on the National Competition jury at IndieLisboa, the city’s annual, 11-day showcase of independent cinema. This festival, under the joint leadership of Nuno Sena and Miguel Valverde, presents as sensibly sized and discerningly cinephilic a program as you’re likely to encounter at a European film fest.
Highlights of the twelfth edition included tributes to “independent heroes” Whit Stillman and Mia Hansen-Løve, as well as a host of works by German filmmaker Jan Soldat, whose preoccupation with the darkly eccentric and weirdly sexy qualities of people’s quotidian lives recalls the documentaries of Ulrich Seidl (whose latest doc, “In the Basement” screened here). For his part, Stillman was checking out Lisbon as a possible location: like Barcelona in 1992, this city feels very much alive, though perhaps too rugged to accommodate the high-society pretensions displayed by Stillman’s characters. Indeed, the community in attendance at the Cinemateca Portuguesa — where I saw a 35mm screening of “Sixteen Candles” (1984), John Hughes’ rough, broad and weirdly racist dress rehearsal for “Pretty in Pink” (1986) — is too serious and invested in art for Stillman’s dilettantes.
Whit’s trick, across his four feature films so far, has been to play things out with warmth, with a wish to understand his characters and where they might come from — which might account for why, in this coldly ironic age, several attendees were bemused by what they took to be sub-Rohmer messiness in “The Last Days of Disco” (1998).
If the Cinemateca ranks among the world’s best repertory venues, it’s inside the auditoriums of São Jorge and Culturgest — the massive, fortress-like arts and culture space built near Lisbon’s Campo Pequeno bullring the same year that Stillman’s “Barcelona” premiered — that you find the festival’s busiest bursts of activity.
IndieLisboa is a truly exciting place for any Portuguese filmmaker to premiere a new film. The discovery this year was “The Eyes of André,” António Borges Correia’s understated and tender reconstruction of a pre-existing rural community, at the heart of which is the Morais family — four boys and their single father — who must come to terms with losing their youngest member to foster care following allegations about the patriarch’s legitimacy. A much quieter companion piece to Jean-Charles Hue’s more thrillerish “Eat Your Bones,” Correa’s fourth feature-length work casts a non-professional ensemble to play versions of their real-life selves, making for an idiosyncratic and perhaps even Bressonian meld of austerity and artifice. Deservingly, it won a number of prizes — including Best Feature in the National Competition.
Each shorts program in the National Competition section was preceded by the obligatory introduction to (and by) each director — with many calling for cast and crew to join them on stage in order to share a moment in the buzzy spotlight. “On the Side” by Filipa Resi and João Miller Guerra, and “Othon” by Guillaume Pazat and Martim Ramos, were welcome inclusions. The first brings together several different characters from its directors’ previous shorts to sketch out a refreshingly colorful narrative of lives lived in parallel on a minimum wage: every day’s a hustle here, but there’s a heartening focus on characters as people who have to live in the world (without, say, the luxury of time in which to make or ruminate about a film).
“Othon” is a 37-minute document of a vertical slum: a former São Paulo hotel that, following years of dilapidation, was closed in 2008 — only for more than 800 squatters, living “off crumbs” and unable to afford the city’s unthinkably high rents, to occupy its many rooms. Though it’s not especially radical, and falls foul at points to the same arbitrary structures that plague a great number of festival films, I liked the way this work accumulates its sense of space — through disorienting fragments and shots of cramped quarters, to say nothing of that dizzying opening image, in which one resident ascends an endless stairwell carrying water to a neighbor on the 23rd floor.
But many filmmakers are prone to off-putting navel-gazing. Short films such as Tiago Rosa-Rosso’s “Law of Gravity,” Francisco Quiemadela and Mariana Caló’s “The Mesh and the Circle,” and Karen Akerman and Miguel Seabra Lopes’ “October is Over” may never see the light of day beyond Portugal. In the first, two young cineastes discuss the function they serve by starring in the very film they’re appearing in; in the second (which won a number of the festival’s prizes), geometry forms the basis of a playfully dense if ultimately nonsensical foray into the language of cinema no less; in the third, a toddler is given free rein with some film stock and makes an aggressively meaningless movie. Was it Herzog who said cinema is the art of illiterates? Whatever, it was Godard, Tarkovsky and de Oliveira being name-dropped across these three shorts.
Portugal’s master auteur Manoel de Oliveira, who recently died at age 108, haunted the festival like a benign ghost, with his posthumously Cannes-bound “Memories and Confessions” (1982) screened to delegates one morning during the festival (“a masterpiece,” I’m told) and a sublime 35mm print of his 1963 short “The Hunt” preceding the final-night awards ceremony.