How little, or how much, has Portuguese cinema changed in the 40 years that have passed since the 1974 revolution that brought down the fascist regime of António de Oliveira Salazar? Or even in the half century since the Cinema Novo movement that, in the early- to mid-1960s, pushed a new generation of filmmakers, strongly influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague, to the forefront?
In truth, watching today something like Brandos Costumes, Alberto Seixas Santos' 1975 debut feature, suggests much of what has become identified with contemporary Portuguese auteur cinema was entirely present already in the work of that generation. The abstract tone of this highly stylized take on the grey mores of pre-revolution Portugal pre-dates and anticipates the work of modern-day filmmakers such as Miguel Gomes or Pedro Costa; but, put into its proper socio-political-cultural context, Brandos Costumes was quite the departure, its openly auteurist tone effectively melding Mr. Seixas Santos' earlier career as a critic, a film student and the maker of industrial documentaries.
While there is in fact a smidgen of narrative in the film, this is in fact much more of a mood-piece, a series of tableaux arranged in a satirical pageant that depicts a stifled, festering society in apparently contradictory ways, see-sawing between a more naturalistic portrayal and a minimalist, highly codified formal experiment. Almost entirely set in interiors and alternating both scripted fiction and archival footage, Mr. Seixas Santos' script, written with poets and writers Luiza Neto Jorge and Nuno Júdice, follows the members of an unnamed Lisbon family as they live under the shadow of the regime.
Speaking in stilted dialogues or monologues that are mostly quoted from other sources (from official propaganda broadcasts to political tracts and resistance essays), echoing Jean-Luc Godard's most overtly political era, the characters are archetypal representations of the Portuguese society that the dictator Salazar once compared to a family. The parents (Luís Santos and Dalila Rocha) are conventional, conservative, conformist; the oldest daughter (Isabel de Castro) lives numbly, pining for her lover who has been sent to fight in the bloody fields of the African colonial wars; the youngest daughter (Sofia de Carvalho) has had enough and is looking for a way out of the maze she feels trapped in.
Bookended by apparently unrelated but truly programmatic scenes, Brandos Costumes remains today a somewhat radical proposition in its abstract, low-budget stylization and the demands it places on the viewer that is not aware of the particular circumstances it was created in. Shot over two years, it was mostly finished before the 1974 revolution took place, giving its ending with an apparent revolution taking over the streets of Lisbon an eerily prescient feel; after the revolution, Mr. Seixas Santos further shaped the film with the addition of more topical material.
Seen 40 years later, Brandos Costumes remains more than just a curio: it is a reflection of its time in a way few other Portuguese films ever were, and also of its director's impressive theoretical influences (Mr. Seixas Santos went on to a halting, uneven career that brought only three more features). But its mathematical, almost academic tone was also a foreword of the demanding auteurist cinema that Portugal has become known for internationally.
Cast Luís Santos, Dalila Rocha, Isabel de Castro, Sofia de Carvalho, Constança Navarro, Cremilda Gil
Director Alberto Seixas Santos; screenwriters Mr. Seixas Santos, Luiza Neto Jorge and Nuno Júdice; cinematographer Acácio de Almeida (colour); composer Jorge Peixinho; art director João Vieira; editor Solveig Nordlund; production companies Centro Português de Cinema and Tóbis Portuguesa
Screened April 1st 2014, Lisbon (DVD)