A smart, engaging but ultimately unsatisfactory oddity, director Rodrigo Areias' second feature takes its lead from Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience essay to stage a sparse, laconic revenge western set in early 20th century rural Portugal: a man returns from America to avenge his brother's death only to find his ethics are out of sorts with a country he no longer recognises as the one he left. Unfolding in stately, beautifully photographed tableaux punctuated by fades to black and soundtracked by the wonderfully evocative score by rock musicians Paulo Furtado and Rita Pereira, Estrada de Palha moves with unusual clarity of vision and determination. The film cleverly uses the codes of the western to wrap up a disenchantment with society and politics that isn't exclusively contemporary, while also suggesting an ethical, philosophical odyssey through modern society (a Westernised Pilgrim's Progress, if you will).

     Mr. Areias' highly polished, undoubtedly earnest but occasionally playful handling finds a perfect echo in the steely performance of Vítor Correia as Alberto, the failed priest who returns home to honour the family name and finds his homeland beyond redemption; he's a hero in the best manly tradition of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, though the way the film's breathtaking rural locations and mr. Correia's own craggy good looks knowingly play with the “spaghettisation” of the American western in the 1960s suggests the director is thinking more of either Eastwood or second tier stars such as Lee van Cleef.

     However, mr. Areias' scripting is less assured than his laidback control of tempo and rhythm, suggesting he may have bitten off more than he could chew in trying to pool so many influences into a single script. While in line with the general theme of the movie, the payoff may eventually seem underwhelming, and comes off as inexplicably rushed after the leisurely rhythm of what has come before. By the same token, most of the supporting characters remain tantalisingly one-dimensional and underdeveloped — corrupt officer Bacelo (appropriately if excessively played over-the-top by Nuno Melo) and escaped black prisoner Américo (a quietly bewildered Ângelo Torres), who speaks in an unsubtitled African dialect no one understands, come off as conceptual additions that bring nothing to the table.

     Still, even though the film never rises to its full potential, there is a lot in Estrada de Palha that will endear it to adventurous viewers, and much to admire in mr. Areias' impressive visual storytelling talents. The film received its world premiere at a special event Vila do Conde International Short Film Festival in July 2011 where the soundtrack was performed live while the film was being projected.

Vítor Correia, Nuno Melo, Inês Mariana Moitas, Ângelo Torres, Adelaide Teixeira.

     Director/writer, Rodrigo Areias; cinematography, Jorge Quintela (colour); music, The Legendary Tigerman (Paulo Furtado), Rita Redshoes (Rita Pereira); art director, Ricardo Preto; costumes, Susana Abreu; editor, Tomás Baltazar; producer, Mr. Areias (Bando à Parte in co-production with Oktober, in association with Cinemate, Cimbalino Filmes and Tráfico Audiovisual), Portugal/Finland, 2011, 94 minutes.

     Screened: Curtas Vila do Conde 2011 advance DVD screener, Lisbon, July 3rd 2011, and Curtas Vila do Conde 2011 special presentation, Teatro Municipal de Vila do Conde, July 9th 2011. 


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