If you're familiar with the highly stylized nature of the work of Portuguese director João Botelho, his take on José Maria Eça de Queiroz's late-19th century fresco Os Maias (the closest any novel has come to be "The Great Portuguese Novel") won't faze you. From his very first feature, 1981's Conversa Acabada, depicting the friendship between early 20th century poets Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Mr. Botelho has explored an almost painterly graphic sensibility and put it in service of a geometric, square-cornered formalism that can make his work heavy going for the average viewer. But, even when the films have not lived up to promise or premise, there has always been a very personal combination of distancing and passion that makes Mr. Botelho's work stand out from his generation of filmmakers and even of some of his avowed influences.
Os Maias is a tragically romantic family saga doubling as riotous, savage picaresque of 19th century bourgeois mores; it is centred on the ill-fated love affair between Carlos da Maia (Graciano Dias), dashing young scion of a wealthy Lisbon family, and Maria Eduarda Castro Gomes (Maria Flor), a beautiful but mysterious new arrival to the city, but uses their passion as a magnifying glass to look at the decaying upper-class society and the rising nouveau-riche bourgeoisie. Mr. Botelho's take on the material is, deliberately, highly theatricalised, almost operatic in its lavish yet austere visuals. The narrative flow is rendered in elaborate tableaux, ravishingly photographed by João Ribeiro, that look staged for the benefit of an audience; they were entirely shot in a soundstage and use painted backdrops by artist João Queiroz as stand-ins for locations.
The effect is meant to underline the concept of a society of spectacle that parades itself in public, where every gesture and pose is designed to be a status symbol. For the director, who in interviews has admitted his wish to use the novel as a mirror raised up to a contemporary Portuguese society with a lot in common to 19th century Lisbon, Os Maias becomes a "vanity fair" of gossipy social structures that delight in the irrelevant and dismiss the important; the film heightens it by focussing on artifice and design as a shortcut to emotion and truth, a sort of "meta-film" where what matters is what is hidden instead of what is visible.
Is it too abstract or intellectual an approach to the book? It's really a tricky question to ask and even trickier to answer; the book is one of those unavoidable classics everyone who's come across it has an opinion about, but Mr. Botelho isn't worried about diluting his vision into a crowd-pleasing result. Quite the opposite: this is very clearly the director's vision of Os Maias, but his triumph is that the film is simultaneously faithful to his oeuvre and to the spirit of the novel, accessible to an audience unused to his tricks without giving up the novel's many layers of meaning. The film's overt artificialism and theatricality (from its use of black and white in the prologue onwards) also suggest a circle being closed with Mr. Botelho's earlier films (not only Conversa Acabada but also his black & white adaptation of Charles Dickens' Hard Times).
It's by no means a perfect film: both in its three-hour "director's cut" and in its 2h20 "short cut", Os Maias may seem more of a succession of tableaux than an actual flowing narrative, unhelped by the stilted leads - Ms. Flor and Mr. Dias are too subdued and leaden to portray accurately the burning passion at the heart of their affair. This is particularly notable in the shorter version, more focussed on the love story; the longer director's cut balances it out more evenly with the social commentary, but remains somewhat askew since a brilliant Pedro Inês as Carlos' friend and sidekick, the impulsive, flamboyant João da Ega, anchors the satire to perfection. The result is a seductive music box of a film, simultaneously hyper-romantic and overly sober, that looks like one of those prestige costume dramas but subverts it through its smart, thoughtful, stylized approach; if you're expecting it to be bland and agreeable, you might have another think coming. Which is all for the best; unanimity is a bitch and if you're trying hard to please everyone you'll end up pleasing no one.
OS MAIAS - CENAS DA VIDA ROMÂNTICA
Portugal, Brasil 2014
186 minutes (director's cut)
139 minutes (general release version)
Cast Graciano Dias, Maria Flor, Pedro Inês, João Perry, Hugo Mestre Amaro, Maria João Pinho, Adriano Luz, Filipe Vargas, Marcello Urgeghe, Pedro Lacerda, Rita Blanco, José Manuel Mendes, André Gonçalves, Jorge Vaz de Carvalho
Director and screenwriter João Botelho; based on the novel by José Maria Eça de Queiroz, Os Maias; cinematographer João Ribeiro (colour, widescreen); art director Sílvia Grabowski; backdrops João Queiroz; costumes Tânia Franco; editor João Braz; producer Alexandre Oliveira; production companies Ar de Filmes in co-production with Raccord Produções, Bando à Parte and RTP
Screened August 19th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (general release version advance press screening), and September 1st 2014, ICA screening room, Lisbon (director's cut press screening)
OS MAIAS - TRAILER from Ar de Filmes on Vimeo.