Somewhere between a film essay and a backstage documentary lies José Filipe Costa's feature documentary Linha Vermelha, a fascinating if abstract look at the story behind one of the most legendary of all political films. Torre Bela was the record of an episode in the period after the Portuguese revolution of 1974, when a group of poor farmworkers took over the huge Torre Bela estate in the South Central Ribatejo area, abandoned by their aristocratic owners, to farm it collectively as a cooperative. Supervised by German director Thomas Harlan, the son of infamous Jew Suss director Veit Harlan, Torre Bela was designed as an "open-source" film, with Mr. Harlan's team making the footage shot on location available for free to anyone wishing to use it to make their own take on the episode. There is talk of a four-hour "director's cut", but after its 1976 premiere the film has existed in a number of wildly variable edits and versions.

     Linha Vermelha started out as a "compare-and-contrast" exercise focused on the lives of the men and women involved in the occupation, but Mr. Costa realized the strange power Mr. Harlan's images have since gained, the way they have crystallized in many people's minds - including of those who lived through the period - a certain image of the 1974 revolution. Switching to using the original film itself as the subject of his work, Mr. Costa interviewed Mr. Harlan (using only the recorded sound of their conversations) as well as part of the crew and cast to reveal Torre Bela as a "narrative documentary"; the key scene that lingers in the minds of those who have seen it is a controversial entrance by the farmworkers in the actual manor where the former owners lived, presented as the first time any of them had been inside but being in fact a "staged" entry with people perfectly aware they were being filmed and goofing off in front of the camera. In the process, Linha Vermelha becomes a sort of theoretical investigation on the limits and definitions of documentary and fiction, revealing Torre Bela as a construct that did not invent reality but instead shaped it into a narrative befitting the purpose of an activist director that wanted to project a certain image of the revolution.

     Mr. Costa's elegant zooms in and out of the film, using the actual 35mm film stock of Torre Bela as a visual motif and the original sound reels as an audio motif interspersed with contemporary footage and interviews, underline how a viewer's interest can be spiked and directed by the simple manipulation of the basic elements of cinema, and how everyone involved in the production realized just how much they themselves were projecting their own experiences and visions of what the revolution should be. While it may be tricky going for a general interest audience, it's a fascinating insight into film history and film theory whose cerebral aspects are carefully balanced to not put anyone off.

Director/writer, José Filipe Costa; camera, Paulo Menezes, Pedro Pinto, João Ribeiro (colour); editor, João Braz; producers, João Matos, Mr. Costa (Terratreme Filmes), Portugal, 2011, 86 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 2 (Lisbon), March 20th 2012.


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