Bouncing back from a disastrous sophomore effort Daqui p'rá Frente, director Catarina Ruivo serves up an intriguing, smartly played variation on classic film noir tropes in Em Segunda Mão. Moody and confidently handled, the film's ebb-and-flow plot is probably its least convincing element, but the deliberately stately handling and the understated final performance from the late Pedro Hestnes, who died during editing, go a long way towards making this a strong step forward for a helmer whose career hit a dead end after Daqui p'rá Frente failed to repeat the acclaim of her debut André Valente.

     Admittedly, having some knowledge of Mr. Hestnes' career helps much: a reluctant actor whose physical presence came to embody much of the Portuguese films from the 1990s, his performance here echoes many of his previous work and especially in Manuel Mozos' Xavier. It's uncanny just how much his character, Jorge, a jobbing writer of pseudonymous erotic fiction who says at one point he's in his late thirties and has never held a normal job, seems to reflect his own presence in Portuguese cinema as a "disappearing act" that surfaced at regular intervals.

     Yet Em Segunda Mão's slowly unfolding mystery is readable without any prior knowledge of the actor's past: the central conceit of a man who finds himself so irresistibly attracted to the life of a mystery man who disappeared without a clue that he ends up slipping into it is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. And it's also well played enough, among sophisticated, geometric surfaces of glass and mirror where everything is either reflected or exposed. The plot does creak and sag occasionally under a lot of unfilled holes - and scripting has always been Ms. Ruivo's weakness - but the fact that the film follows Jorge's POV throughout, and that he has never full knowledge of the trap he is being lured into, actually plays to the film's strength. It introduces a note of uncertainty and melancholy that keeps you wondering just what exactly is hiding under the impeccable surfaces.

Pedro Hestnes, Rita Durão, Vasco Apolinário; Marcello Urgeghe, Luís Miguel Cintra, João Grosso, Ricardo Aibéo; Joana de Verona, António Pedro Figueiredo, Diana Costa e Silva, Luís Lucas.
     Director and editor, Catarina Ruivo; screenplay, Ms. Ruivo, Mr. Figueiredo; cinematography (color, processing by Light Film), João Ribeiro; designers, Isabel Branco, Paulo Szabo; costumes, Ana Simão; producer, Fernando Vendrell (David e Golias), Portugal, 2012, 110 minutes.
     Screened: IndieLisboa 2012 advance press screening, Castello Lopes Londres 1 (Lisbon), April 13th 2012. 


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