Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Portuguese Nun

THE PORTUGUESE NUN          B+            
Portugal  France  (127 mi)  2010  d:  Eugène Green

This is unconventional filmmaking that by adhering to its own rules and guidelines makes a significant difference by intentionally altering the viewer’s expectations.  Mixing a combination of intentional artifice with near documentary realism results in a mixed bag that continually keeps the audience off balance, as the film constantly shifts between the mediums, where the excruciatingly realistic photography of the city of Lisbon by Raphäel O’Byrne is balanced against the unemotional, seemingly wooden dialogue that is right out of a Bresson film, in particular DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951), where the rhythm of small intimate moments is spare and minimalist, with no excess emotion, rarely speaking unless absolutely necessary, using a steady stream of close ups where the actors occasionally stop and look directly into the camera, carefully creating a visual sphere of what it is to be human, recreating mechanical gestures, physical movements, using parts of the body, like hands or feet, all leading to one particular moment in the film, a transcendent moment that is excruciatingly intense, where the core of one's beliefs are challenged and perceptions are shattered.  Bresson was less interested in the character than the idea the character represented, which is the intention here as well.  While the style appears detached and monotonous, using the stiff formality of Portuguese centenarian Manoel De Oliveira, an icon revered in Portugal who at 101 is the oldest working director, but Green, an American born Parisian, has other intentions, where his use of the camera is positively scintillating, an unseen force with a driving sense of unending curiosity, where he reels us in with the opening shot of a graffiti-laden street from high upon a hill, a slow 180 degree pan of the city of Lisbon, using natural sound with ships at sea moving off in the distance, vessels in transit suggestive of a journey in progress, people pursuing new directions, where his use of ships are lives in motion, reminiscent of Ozu’s use of trains.

Using chapter titles, we are initially introduced to a young French actress Julie (Leonor Baldaque), one of only two actors in a supposed 17th century film being shot in Lisbon about a nun who falls in love with a military officer, where the actors only have two scenes together, with all the dialogue read in pre-recorded letters, calling it “unconventional,” where the hotel desk clerk acknowledges “I never see French films, they're too intellectual.”   While the described period drama does sound dreadfully forgetful, where one can’t help seeing the irony in the director’s call on the set for “action” and the utter lack thereof, Green then proceeds to break the barrier of this common perception, where the camera follows Julie as she explores the streets of the city, where she happens upon a friendly but parentless child alone in the streets, Vasco (Francisco Mozos), or meets the director (amusingly played by the director Green) for a late night drink with another panoramic view overlooking the city.  The streets are immaculately clean and the film may as well be a picture postcard of the city, yet there’s a pervading sense of sadness that is beautifully expressed by local musicians she hears playing in an empty cantina, where they describe an unfulfilled yearning, as if they sense her innermost thoughts and are singing just for her.  The intimacy captured on camera is exquisite, as each new encounter is extraordinary, where she meets a distinguished older aristocrat (Diogo Dória) who lives alone in a purely candle lit manor, luminous in its darkened elegance, where his stately politeness feels otherworldly and seemingly exists from another era, yet at the same time masks his own hidden vulnerabilities, while Julie is distinguished by an air of natural grace that seems easily adaptable, especially as she converses effortlessly in two languages, but she, too, guards her true inner feelings, which she’s incapable of expressing. 

This film is not without plenty of self-effacing humor, where one of the funniest scenes in the film is catching the director himself in a candid moment on a disco floor attempting to dance with two beautiful women, who eventually completely ignore him and pair off together, leaving him to console alone with his drink at the bar.  Julie, however, steps out for some evening air and is approached by yet another young gentleman (Carloto Cotta), this one coming directly to the point, wishing to sweep her off her feet, yet his exaggerated seriousness is undermined by her playfulness and surprising quick wit, where both engage in somewhat preposterous conversation where she insists he is the reincarnation of Dom Sebastião, a 16th century gay king who’s had plenty of time, namely four hundred years, to find a way to adapt to more modern times, which in this film’s context, is utterly enthralling, as it perfectly blends the past into the present, while she flirtatiously keeps her true intentions hidden.  Julie stumbles into yet another musical setting, set in a wine-drenched subterranean bar atmosphere of mostly couples sitting at small cramped tables bathed in a warm romantic light, this time filled to the hilt with customers where every inch of space is filled.  The completely modest and unpretentious Aldina Duarte sings with searing emotion, offering a poetry of the soul that again captures an enduring sadness, which must reflect the national character, before elevating the mood into something a little more up tempo.  But the scene of the film takes place in a nearby chapel, another beautifully candle lit interior decors, where a nun (Ana Moreira) curiously keeps a regular all night vigil, which captures Julie’s imagination, especially since she’s playing the part of a nun in her film.  Their conversation, though saturated in the manners of an indescribable formal language where each speaks sincerely and with utter clarity about their quest for love, with their thoughts uniquely stripped of any pretension, revealing finally their inner most feelings, fragile, gentle, spare, yet soaringly uplifting in a spiritual sense, a breakthrough moment focused on moral purpose offering a poetic, transcendent grace.  

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