"One book can change a life" is said at one point in veteran helmer António-Pedro Vasconcelos' extremely disappointing new film. True enough, and you could also apply it to a film, a play, a picture, etc. In this case, however, Os Gatos Não Têm Vertigens will hardly change anybody's life: that one of the few Portuguese directors who has kept a constant stream of work ever since the late 1960s/early 1970s Cinema Novo movement has stooped to the level of an entirely anonymous, almost unrecognisable hack-for-hire is all the more disappointing, for Mr. Vasconcelos has been one of the few directors to hit that sweet mainstream spot of cinéma du milieu that so many Portuguese filmmakers look for but are unable to find.
Sadly, the director doesn't find it either on this infuriatingly basic melodrama that fails to make the most of its premise and of a superb lead performance by the great (and often underused) actress Maria do Céu Guerra. She is outstanding as Rosa Correia, a recent widower whose life loses meaning and reason after her husband Joaquim (Nicolau Breyner, in a small supporting role) dies unexpectedly; though she keeps talking to him and seeing him around the house, in the form of a benevolent ghost hovering around looking after her, daughter Luísa (Fernanda Serrano) is worried by what she sees as her mother's descent into senility or dementia, while the callous son-in-law (Ricardo Carriço) merely wants to get rid of her so he can rent out her prime real-estate flat in the centre of the city.
Ms. Guerra is exceedingly sensitive to the predicament Rosa finds herself in and fleshes out her character with an attention to detail that is much helped by a few nice touches in Tiago Santos' script, but the film seems to shy away from making that look into the difficulties and indignities of old age its raison d'être. The real focus of the script is Rosa's relationship with homeless teenager Jó (João Jesus), a problem kid from a broken home thrown out by his alcoholic father, hanging out with juvenile delinquents and finding refuge in the rooftop of the building where she lives. And the film suddenly starts spending a lot more time in Jó's company, in what looks far too much like a contrivance required to get the project off the ground by appealing to audiences other than seniors - and his story is textbook soap opera 101 about the sensitive but misunderstood kid (a budding writer, no less) that society keeps kicking down into the dumps, but that one friendly hand will help rise above.
It's all so predictable and basic in its storytelling and narrative arc, without any flair or distinctive features, that it kind of beggars belief that this would come from a veteran with credentials. It's purely functional filmmaking in the service of a story that isn't so much written but built along a to-do list of check boxes for feuilletonesque aspects or stock characters (evil son-in-law? clueless daughter? prostitute with heart of gold? etc.).
The result is that the decent, even intriguing start (a rather smart opening one-take steadycam shot promising so much) is slowly but deliberately wasted, as are the not inconsiderable talents of all involved (even veteran film composer Luís Cilia has watered down here his more usual angular work, going for a saccharine jugular that seems entirely in auto-pilot). The handling and scripting whittle the many possibilities of the premise down to the least interesting, more formulaic choices, and weren't it for Ms. Guerra's precisely measured performance, respectfully directed by Mr. Vasconcelos, Os Gatos Não Têm Vertigens would be a pointless, entirely forgettable object whose true home would be the small screen. It seems as if all involved thought that what audiences want from a big-screen melodrama is blown-up soap opera - which would be fine if the soap opera was any good, and this isn't.
OS GATOS NÃO TÊM VERTIGENS
Cast Maria do Céu Guerra, João Jesus, Fernanda Serrano, Ricardo Carriço, Nicolau Breyner
Director António-Pedro Vasconcelos; screenwriter Tiago R. Santos; cinematographer José António Loureiro (colour, widescreen); composer Luís Cília; art director João Torres; costumes Pedro Eleutério and Mia Lourenço; editor Pedro Ribeiro; producer Tino Navarro; production company MGN Filmes in co-production with RTP and the participation of NOS Audiovisuais
Screened September 4th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)