A belated directorial debut for a veteran screenwriter with a thirty-year career, Photo is also a somewhat bewildering, cold film that never really answers its own questions - a textbook case of a film whose script suggests more than the director could achieve, all the more disappointing as screenwriter and director are one and the same. It's a shame, since Carlos Saboga (screenwriter, among others, for Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon) does have one good ace up his sleeve: to have a mystery be solved by someone who is in fact looking to solve an entirely different one. This, though, is wrapped up in a more conventional dovetailing of personal family history and wider political History, and in this case the Portuguese dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, finally deposed in April 1974 by a military coup.

     Learning of her mother's death in Paris, estranged daughter Élisa (Anna Mouglalis) returns home to find a series of photographs where her mother, a renowned photo journalist, is seen with three Portuguese political exiles who were her friends with benefits. Realising one of them is the biological father she never met and her mother never talked of, Élisa decides to travel to Portugal to track them down, only to find that the identity of the father is inextricably linked with the mysterious death of the strongest candidate, Abel, shortly after coming back to Portugal two weeks before the coup.

     While the whole personal/political interlinking is in itself a tried and true trope of European films ever since the 1960s, the real problem is that Photo never really moves beyond an artificial, slightly detached game of hide and seek, where there are in effect practically no stakes other than Élisa's unexplained need-to-know. Ms. Mouglalis' performance is a one-note phone-in, completely unable to give the character any depth, and none of the extended cast of second-tier supporting players has much to work with; only Johan Leysen, as the "stepfather" who actually raised Élisa, manages to make the role exist beyond the plot requirements that place every actor/character on a game board as mere functional archetypes. Dramatically inert despite the solid technical credits, anonymously handled (and even somewhat half-hearted in its over-reliance on a French cast for a film that is supposedly all about Portugal), Photo doesn't have enough of a personality to stand on its own two feet, suggesting Mr. Saboga remains a better screenwriter than director.

Cast: Anna Mouglalis, Johan Leysen, Simão Cayatte, Didier Sandre, Rui Morrison, Ana Padrão, Anabela Brígida, José Neto, Hélène Patarot, Carla de Sá, Marisa Paredes
Director and screenwriter: Carlos Saboga
Cinematography: Mário Barroso (colour)
Art director: Maria José Branco
Costumes: Isabel Branco
Editor: Paulo Mil Homens
Producer: Paulo Branco (Alfama Films)
France/Portugal, 2012, 78 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 2 (Lisbon), April 30th 2013


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