It's worth asking what exactly is director Inês Oliveira aiming at with her sophomore feature. Despite having made some confounding public statements about the controversial African practice of female genital mutilation in relation with Bobô, this turns out to be a very minor, undeveloped and unexplained plot strand, and what seems to be one of its central premises turns out to have been misleading. When Bobô reaches the end of its short running time, the viewer is left strangely bewildered by what exactly was the point of the film.

     Though it doesn't necessarily seem like it, this bewilderment does represent a marked improvement over Ms. Oliveira's debut feature, Cinerama, an almost incomprehensible piece plagued by production problems that appeared to mesh together three unconnected shorts into a somewhat jumbled, unfinished whole. Here, there is a narrative thread, as well as proper characters and a minimum of narrative momentum, retaining as well what was most interesting in Cinerama, the cool, patient eye for composition and event that had been visible in the director's previous shorts. There's a sense that Ms. Oliveira is expecting the layers of her story to unfold slowly as she follows the awkward contact between Sofia (Paula Garcia), a depressive architect who seems to live in seclusion in her Lisbon flat, and Mariama (Aissato Indjai), the African live-in maid her mother has arranged to come take care of the flat and maybe nudge Sofia enough to get out of her funk.

     Childhood is a key element in the film's narrative economy, as well as the one plot point that propels the film forward: there's a fully furnished but otherwise empty nursery in the flat that Sofia maintains it's her son's while keeping it off-limits to Mariama, but the child is never seen. Later, there's also the maid's daughter Bobô, who lives with her aunt and occasionally comes spend the day with Mariama and coaxes a genuine smile and friendliness from Sofia, and seems to be at the heart of a family row related to the grandmother who performs genital circumcisions and comes visit for a relative's wedding. Yet, the African strand is left pretty much undeveloped; the actual reason of the family row is more suggested than explained, as is the interest that Sofia has in African mysticism and the nightmares she occasionally has with a strange shaman-like feature, possibly related to the death under tragic circumstances of her brother.

     For all that, Bobô is another textbook example of the problem that stalks much contemporary Portuguese filmmakers. The actual narrative connections between Sofia's and Mariama's stories are generally evasive and forced, suggesting an insufficiently developed script or severe editing-room cuts, but in either case having ejected whatever connecting tissue the film required to make any sort of narrative sense to the average viewer. There's always the feeling that Bobô remains constantly elusive, failing to connect the dots dramatically. It's the work of a director who certainly has a visual eye (there's a fascinating sequence in an African wedding that has an intriguing documentary feel) and even a way with actors (the performances, especially Ms. Garcia's, are probably the best thing in the film) but may not know exactly what it is she wants or how to get there. It's her second question mark in a row.

Cast: Paula Garcia, Aissato Indjai
Director: Inês Oliveira
Screenplay: Rita Benis, Ms. Oliveira
Cinematography: Daniel Neves (colour)
Art directors: Maria José Branco, Nuno Gabriel Melo
Costumes: Margarida Morins
Editors: Rui Pedro Mourão, Patrícia Saramago, Ms. Oliveira
Producers: Luis Alvarães, Fernando Vendrell (David & Golias)
Portugal, 2013, 78 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 Portuguese competition advance press screening, Digital Master screening room, Lisbon, April 19th 2013


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