82 minutes

Franco-Portuguese director Carlos Vilardebó's sole feature has the word “oddity” plastered all over its short length: an adaptation of Herman Melville's novella The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles shot in breathtaking Portuguese island locations, casting legendary Fado singer Amália Rodrigues against type in a rare dramatic role, directed by an untested director whose experience had been mainly in documentary shorts. Little wonder that the film literally dropped like a lead balloon at the 1960s box-office and became a seldom-seen, seldom-remembered, "cursed" film – Melville is a notoriously difficult writer to adapt, while the original novella is a loose series of geographically connected sketches, insufficiently narrative to hold a feature film together.

     Mr. Vilardebó's adaptation imposes a nested flashback framework on what seems to be a series of unconnected reminiscences from a scientific trip to the Encantadas archipelago by a former naval officer (Pierre Vaneck) - according to a prologue added to the French version of the film but apparently absent from the original Portuguese print. The central plot adresses the encounter with the forlorn widow Hunila (ms. Rodrigues), left alone in one of the islands after her husband and young brother whom she had accompanied on an expedition drown in the high seas, and with the androgynous French sailor (Pierre Clémenti) who deserts his ship to be with her.

     But, despite the stunning, angular landscapes gloriously photographed by Jean Rabier, there is little or no narrative drive in this succession of rapturous Kodachromes awkwardly stitched together, and there is really no point or resolution to the narrative leads (suggesting serious post-production attempts at salvaging the material). The cast tries its best to flesh out the characters, with a revelatory performance from ms. Rodrigues, whose soft-spoken presence suggests a true dramatic talent left untapped (she would not act again in a film after this). Even if this is a failure by most accounts, though, it is a seriously fascinating one, with a number of superb plans suggesting mr. Vilardebó was an aesthete shoehorned into a role he was under-prepared for.

Starring Pierre Vaneck, Pierre Clémenti; and Amália Rodrigues.
     Directed by Carlos Vilardebó; screenplay by Jeanne Vilardebó, mr. Vilardebó, Raymond Bellour, based on the novella by Herman Melville, The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles; music by Philippe Arthuys; director of photography (Agfacolor, processing by Ulyssea Filme and Éclair), Jean Rabier; production designer, Jacques Schmidt; film editor, Sylvie Blanc.
     A Pierre Kalfon presentation of a Les Films Number One/SETIC Distribution—Michel Peynet selection; an António da Cunha Telles presentation/production.
     Screened: Curtas Vila do Conde 2011, In Focus Pierre Clémenti sidebar, Teatro Municipal de Vila do Conde screen 2, July 11th 2011. 


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