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Locarno: How Modern Portuguese Cinema Is Uniting the Past and the Present

At one of Europe's largest film festivals, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about Portuguese films.

“The Ornithologist”

This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists.

Audiences at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival got used to hearing a familiar statement: “I just saw a Portuguese film.” They were hard to ignore. Fourteen films of some 200 in the lineup were directed or produced by Portuguese people and were distributed across different sections of the festivals. Viewed together, they have a lot to say about the state of a country’s cinema and its ability to wrestle with broad historical concerns.

These included the so-called “blasphemous” biopic of a Lisbon patron saint in João Pedro Rodrigues’ “The Ornithologist” and “Correspondences,” directed by Rita Azevedo Gomes, which focuses on a letter exchange between two of the most important Portuguese poets from the 20th century (Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and Jorge de Sena).

Meanwhile, four out of 28 short films were produced or co-produced by Portuguese companies: the exploratory “An Aviation Field” from director Joana Pimenta, who wanders between Brazil and the U.S.;  Rita Barbosa’s “Friends After Dark,” a tale taking place in the middle of the forest; Leonor Noivo’s “September,” a narrative that inherits the style of the award-winning director João Salaviza; and José Miguel Ribeiro’s “Fragments,” an exceptional Portuguese animated short.

Rising star Gabriel Abrantes had two short films in another section: “A Brief History of Princess X,” which synthesizes his unique sense of humor, and the dismal fantasy “The Hunchback,” co-directed by Ben Rivers. This section also included the José Oliveira’s short film “Far.”

Portuguese co-productions were a strong part of the lineup: “The Young One” was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story. Directed by Frenchman Julien Samani, it was shot entirely shot in Portugal. There was also “Train of Salt and Sugar,” from the Brazilian Licínio de Azevedo, and the Argentinian “The Human Surge,” the debut from director Eduardo Williams. Out of the official selection, there was also festival favorite “Rio Corgo,” from directing duo Maya Kosa and Sérgio da Costa, and “Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me,” from veteran João Botelho.

This assortment of films provides an idea about some recurring aspects of Portuguese cinema, but also highlights some of the major challenges faced by the country, where a complete film industry has yet to take shape.

In 2011, after unexpected elections and a change of government, the Ministry of Culture ceased to exist. As a result, 2012 was christened “year zero of Portuguese cinema.” It became clear that deficiencies in public funding were responsible for a peculiar phenomenon: as it became harder to make movies in Portugal, more directors embraced the challenge.

Rita Barbosa’s Locarno entry “Friends After Dark” reflects this challenging period of production. Made by friends, for friends, the short stresses (maybe unintentionally) the tribal bonds of the Portuguese film community. These directors are delivering delicate, handcrafted work that is attracting huge attention to the films coming from an area smaller than the state of Indiana.

During the years of the dictatorship (1933-1974), an odd and megalomaniac collage overlaid the maps of the Portuguese colonies and the map of Europe, intending to show the sheer scale of the Portuguese Empire’s territory. Five centuries of colonial past still require proper questioning, as seen in José Miguel Ribeiro’s short “Fragments,” which portrays the wounds left by the colonial war (1961-1974). Meanwhile, “Train of Salt and Sugar” depicts the Mozambique civil war (1977-1992).

During the still-ongoing economic crisis, two Portuguese prime ministers encouraged young people to migrate elsewhere, fleeing the country’s high unemployment rates. Exploring this phenomenon, “Correspondences” exposes the bitterness felt by the writer Jorge de Sena, one of the two main characters of the film. Sena, who lived in exile for about 20 years, was a literature professor in Brazil and later in the U.S. He spent much of his career expressing disappointment for his home country forcing him to flee. And now that sentiment has come home to roost as part of the nation’s recent cinema.

Fortunately, this kind of harsh relationship with the country seems to be yielding some constructive results. For some of the filmmakers showcased in the Locarno lineup, Portugal was simply too beloved to be left behind.

In Leonor Noivo,’s “September,” a young woman who was abroad for a several years heads home with her teenage son in search of a new beginning. This film reflects how Portuguese cinema, along with other modern storytelling, is coming to terms with its place in the world.

Which brings us to “The Ornithologist,” a precious surprise for those who didn’t know João Pedro Rodrigues’ work. The wild film about a bird-watcher who gets lost in the forest includes a small treasure as its closing song: a track by António Variações, an incredible avant-garde Portuguese musician from the eighties. Rewriting the biography of a Catholic saint, Rodrigues’ film embodies a dichotomy that Variações had already welcomed. Moving between Braga (the Portuguese city where he was born) and New York, the artist sways between local and universal reference points. As a whole, contemporary Portuguese cinema does that as well.

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