With his second feature film, Portuguese director Vítor Gonçalves enters rarefied company, as one of the few recluse directors in world cinema to return from a lengthy working hiatus. Part of the youthful film-school generation that came to light in 1980s Portugal, alongside Pedro Costa, Joaquim Leitão or João Canijo, Mr. Gonçalves seemed for too long to be a one-off director, his only credit being 1986's Uma Rapariga no Verão, a slender debut effort that never gained a proper commercial release; over a quarter century later, after a career spent mostly as a film school teacher, he has finally produced this follow-up (though for all practical effects this is his debut for most viewers).
And it shows. The story of a man in stasis, unable to break free of the routine of his days until a tragic event forces a reckoning with his life, is an intriguingly suggestive metaphor of a director easing back into "real life" from a self-imposed exile. His character, mid-level bureaucrat Hugo Macedo (Filipe Duarte), finds he has to leave behind the hushed, wintry existence he has taken refuge in when his boss and mentor (João Perry) is hospitalized with a terminal illness. A Vida Invisível is a sort of "invisible film" itself; everything that happens in it seems to take place inside sound-proofed walls and never raises its voice, its inward-looking, cerebral tone very typical of the art cinema that has come to be identified with Portuguese auteurs. Much of it cannot be truly understood outside its context, and the awareness of Mr. Gonçalves' quarter-century hiatus, and the meta-dimension it gives it, doesn't automatically make up for the many issues it has.
Prime amongst them is its somewhat dated, very 1980s-ish penchant for vague, diffuse, timeless tales and settings; it is never made clear what exactly Hugo does for a living, and he lives and works among mid-century furniture in a stylized mix of past and present. This gives the film a sense of an old script dusted off and reworked, though the central issue of a man coming to grips with his life is certainly timeless. But the film's slow rhythm and hushed tones also suggest that Mr. Gonçalves has pretty much picked up where he left off in 1986, unhelped by Leonardo Simões' uneven cinematography, capable of some dazzling games with light and shadow but also occasionally lost in the harsh grain of the digital photography.
The result suggest that the years since may have passed the director by - an honest, decent but rather rigid film, one with a number of good things going for it but that needed a firmer, more experienced hand to pull off what it wants to do. For all intents and purposes, it's a sophomore work and it's unfair to ask it to be any more than that. But, given it's been a quarter century since Vítor Gonçalves' debut, would it be wrong to expect more than just this?
A VIDA INVISÍVEL
Portugal, United Kingdom 2013
Cast Filipe Duarte, João Perry, Maria João Pinho
Director Vítor Gonçalves; screenwriters Mr. Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista and Jorge Braz Santos; cinematographer Leonardo Simões (colour); composer Sinan C. Savaskan; art director Patrícia Maravilha; costumes Sílvia Siopa and Paula Guerreiro; editors Rodrigo Pereira and Rui Alexandre Santos; producers Pedro Fernandes Duarte, Mr. Santos, Maria João Sigalho and Christopher Young; production companies Rosa Filmes and Young Films
Screened April 30th 2014 (distributor private screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon)