Portugal/United Kingdom
95 minutes

It's not the most obvious decision to update Charles Dickens' 1854 novel Hard Times to mid-1980s Portugal, then shoot it in chiaroscuro black-and-white as a highly stylized morality play. Yet that was exactly what Portuguese director João Botelho did for his third feature, confirming him as one of the most intriguing and idiossyncratic filmmakers revealed in that key decade. Giving free rein simultaneously to his highest aesthetic ambitions and to a dry, deadpan wit that would come to the fore in later (and less successful) works, mr. Botelho adapts mr. Dickens' tale of a fictional industrial town to a modern-day Portugal still getting back on its feet after a fifty-year totalitarian regime. At the same time, he strips the story of any precise temporal settings, so that it can also function as an allegory of the growing pains of a country moving into large-scale manufacturing at any time during the 20th century.

     Centred around the purely utilitarian friendship between two martinets, benefactor Tomaz Cremalheira (Ruy Furtado) and self-made-industrialist José Grandela (Henrique Viana), and the arranged marriage of the latter with the former's much younger daughter Luísa (Julia Britton), the film develops in a mesmerising series of stately, austere monochrome tableaux that often remind of classic silents. António Pinho Vargas' melodious score and Elso Roque's breathtaking camerawork underline the stylish melancholy of the film, constantly subverted and simultaneously heightened by the small cruelties that all the wealthy characters perform on their unlucky underlings; the film's attention to the divide between rich and poor, thought in the throes of disappearance when it was made in 1988, makes it seem clearly prescient seen 25 years on. A more perfect mastery of style and substance was not to be found again in mr. Botelho's work, and Tempos Difíceis remains one of the high points of his career, even if a little seen one.

Starring Henrique Viana, Julia Britton, Eunice Muñoz, Ruy Furtado, Isabel de Castro, Joaquim Mendes, Isabel Ruth, Lia Gama, Inês Medeiros, Luís Estrela, Pedro Cabrita Reis, Maria Alice Pereira, Pedro Hestnes, Maria José Oliveira, Beatriz Moreno, Vasco Letria, Pedro Dias Macedo, António Peixoto, Fernando Cabral Martins, António Sequeira Lopes, António Salgueiro, Dinis Neto Jorge, Francisco Nascimento, Francisco Botelho, António Botelho, Mónica Lopes, Maria Rosa Pereira, Armanda Cardoso, José Paiva, Helder Rainha, Manuel Paiva, Luís Lucas.
     Directed, produced and edited by João Botelho; screenplay by mr. Botelho, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, Hard Times; music by António Pinho Vargas; director of photography (b&w), Elso Roque; production designer, Luís Monteiro; wardrobe, Virgílio Leitão, Jasmim de Matos, Paula Ferreira, Nadia Baggioli, José Faria. 
     A João Botelho/Artificial Eye Productions presentation/production, with financial support from the Portuguese Film Institute, Portuguese Television and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. (Portuguese distributor, Filmes Lusomundo.)
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Félix Ribeiro Theatre (Lisbon), September 8th 2011. 


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