Veteran helmer Joaquim Leitão's disappointingly generic attempt at home-grown big-screen police procedural gains some traction over its first half before ending up totally undone by a rote script that plays unfairly with its audience's expectations. Probably the only director of the 1980s film-school generation to carve out a niche away from the auteurist tradition, Mr. Leitão's career has been indissociable from that of producer Tino Navarro for the past 25 years, resulting in a few solid productions among which a couple of certified box-office hits.

     But that collaboration seems to be now running on fumes, especially since Mr. Navarro started taking sole responsibility for the scripts. This was true of their previous film A Esperança Está Onde Menos Se Espera (2009), a gauche melodrama where the writer-producer and the director seemed to be aiming at different films, but is even truer in a different way in Quarta Divisão, which, despite the qualities Mr. Leitão brings to the film, has to rate as his worst production. The first hour, laying the camaraderie between a Lisbon detective squad let by the hot-tempered Lena Tavares (Carla Chambel) as they search for the missing son of an upper-class family, is a no-nonsense procedural moving along briskly and effectively, if reminding far too much of Maïwenn le Besco's well-meaning Polisse.

     But just as the search for the kid wraps up (a bit too neatly and quickly), having touched on intimations of paedophilia (a hot-button subject in Portuguese society over the past decade), Mr. Navarro's script takes a turn for the worse, piling up plot twists upon plot twists centred on the dysfunctional relationship between the child's father (Paulo Pires) and his aloof, distant trophy wife (Cristina Câmara). In the process, the screenplay reduces the whole thing to cheap, fast-moving soap opera revelations and vendettas that wouldn't strain credulity as much on the small screen but become purely risible on the big screen. Try as he might, Mr. Leitão's functional, nervous style is incapable of giving any veracity or depth to a plot that turns so disbelievingly upon itself to the point of giving whiplash to the audience and, ultimately, cheapens and bowdlerises the very serious issues of abuse it purports to deal with.

     While it's true there's only so much you can do within the realms of the police procedural without falling into traps, the fact that most characters remain written as stereotypes with little personality and give their actors so little to work with (none more so than Ms. Chambel's noble-minded inspector, making the film's final scenes all the more disappointing for disregarding the whole arc of the character's development) condemns Quarta Divisão to the bin of well-meaning but ultimately soulless "problem pictures".

Cast: Carla Chambel, Sabri Lucas, Cristina Câmara, Paulo Pires, Martim Barbeiro, Adriano Luz
Director: Joaquim Leitão
Screenplay: Tino Navarro
Cinematography: Carlos Lopes (colour, widescreen)
Music: Luís Cília
Art director: João Torres
Costumes: Rute Correia
Editor: Pedro Ribeiro
Producer: Mr. Navarro (MGN Filmes in co-production with Radio and Television of Portugal, with the participation of Zon Audiovisuais)
Portugal, 2013, 121 minutes

Screened: distributor premiere screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), February 22nd 2013


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