Asa follow-up to his acclaimed 2011 essay-documentary É na Terra, Não É na Lua, Portuguese filmmaker Gonçalo Tocha may scale down his ambition but certainly not his interests, his curiosity and his experimenting with his third feature. A Mãe e o Mar was part of a series of commissions for the 20th anniversary of the Vila do Conde Short Film festival, and, with João Canijo's Obrigação (retitled É o Amor for its feature expansion), the only one to become a fully-fledged full-length feature.
If É na Terra... looked at a remote community (the Azorean island of Corvo) through the eyes of a newcomer who learns of its nooks and crannies, A Mãe e o Mar focuses on another close-knit community little noticed by the outside world, but one that Mr. Tocha never really becomes a part of - not that it seems to have been his intention. In keeping with the nature of the Vila do Conde commission (requiring a local or regional subject), the community Mr. Tocha chose to film his documentary is the fishing village of Vila Chã, the only place in the world to have had women captaining fishing boats at sea. The film begins thus as an investigation into the history of this unique tradition, but one that stumbles almost immediately on the near-complete absence of written and/or historical testimony. Clutching at whatever few straws are left, the director organises A Mãe e o Mar as an elusive record of the few surviving memories, saving for future reference what little has made it through the years, in the shape of the recollections of the few men and women still alive who remember the practice and, in one or two cases, have actually shipped out to sea with women.
The tone is highly elegiac throughout, occasionally infused with some heavy-handed but unavoidable symbolism, always full of a simple (but not simple-minded) earthiness that suggests it is just the way of all things that this nook of maritime history has become lost in the shadows of the past. To make up for the obvious absence of historical footage, Mr. Tocha explores instead a mise-en-abîme strategy that, as in É na Terra... and its predecessor Balaou, turns the actual making of the film and its filmmakers part of its nature and narrative, as the director himself introduces characters, explains shots and asks questions. In so doing, he invites the viewer along for the ride, while laying out his method and explaining why he's doing it this way.
That is, however, both strength and weakness for this fragile, if affecting, work. There's a sense of a rickety scaffold that may not be strong enough to support his original plan; a series of worthy, smart, affecting interviews, testimonies and oral histories, and a number of beautiful shots, that make sense together but have not found the ideal form or shape. There's no denying A Mãe e o Mar is genuine and heartfelt, and both its modesty and curiosity manage to avoid most traps and pretenses. But there's no denying either that it never really soars, settling instead for an amiably rambling visit to a cabinet of curiosities whose central theme remains infuriatingly out of sight.
A MÃE E O MAR
Director Gonçalo Tocha; camera André Guiomar and Mr. Tocha; editors Mr. Tocha, Rui Ribeiro and Mr. Guiomar; producer Dario Oliveira; production company Curtas Metragens CRL
Screened October 27th 2013 (DocLisboa 2013 advance screener) and May 22nd 2014 (distributor advance screener)
"A Mãe e O Mar" #1 from Gonçalo Tocha on Vimeo.