That Rita Azevedo Gomes trained as an artist is self-evident from the beautiful visuals of A Vingança de uma Mulher, the fourth official full-length fiction in an unruly career spent mainly outside mainstream circuits. This adaptation of a short story by 19th century French writer Barbey d'Aurevilly, about a Spanish noblewoman (the wondrous Rita Durão) who takes her revenge on her tyrannical husband by becoming a prostitute in Lisbon, is the most conventionally narrative of her works, but it is an "arthouse" picture in the narrowest sense of the word. Everything in its stiff, theatrical scaffolding is reminiscent of a specific period of highly austere Portuguese arthouse cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, of the early late-period movies of centenary master Manoel de Oliveira mixed with the late João César Monteiro's poverty-row aesthetics and provocative themes and the stark beauty of João Botelho's early, more stylized works. Not surprisingly, A Vingança de uma Mulher carries a certain musty odour of a film out of sync with its time.
Yet that belittles the immense coherence of the project, and its deliberately sparse, theatrical quality, with narrator/stage manager João Pedro Bénard serving as a "guide" that leads the viewer in and out of the story, leading us behind a richly red, almost Lynchian curtain where a series of deliberately staid, artificial tableaux awaits. There are, to be sure, moments where that artifice breaks down under the weight of everything Ms. Azevedo Gomes wants it to carry (such as the constant game between illusion and reality, life and theatre) where the heightening of the emotion through the reduction of everything to an essence of actors performing on sets before a camera turns to a claustrophobic, borderline sterile puppet theatre. But the moments where A Vingança de uma Mulher threatens to collapse into irrelevance are saved by the director's sheer bloody-mindedness, by the lush visuals created by veteran DP Acácio de Almeida and production designer Pedro Sá, and especially by the heart-stopping, fully inhabited performance of Ms. Durão as the duchess of Sierra Leone, her feline physical presence, fierce eyes and effortless command of space a sight to behold. None of them make A Vingança de uma Mulher less claustrophobic, but they reveal the depth of thought and intelligence that went into its creation and the demands it makes of its viewers. For those willing to follow Ms. Durão down the rabbit-hole, it can be quite a journey.
Rita Durão, Fernando Rodrigues, Marie Carré, Francisco Nascimento, Hugo Tourita, Duarte Martins, António Azevedo Gomes, João Pedro Bénard; Isabel Ruth.
Director/writer, Rita Azevedo Gomes, from the short story by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, "The Revenge of a Woman"; cinematography, Acácio de Almeida (colour); art director, Pedro Sá; wardrobe, Isabel Quadros; editor, Patrícia Saramago; producers, Christine Reeh, Isabel Machado, Joana Ferreira (CRIM Produções), Portugal, 2011, 100 minutes.
Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival 2011 competition advance DVD screener, Lisbon, October 31st 2011.