What makes a documentary a documentary? Why is it so many people still have trouble thinking of it as a genre of filmmaking every bit the equal of narrative fictional cinema? The question must be asked here, because Jorge Pelicano's third feature hovers uneasily between different conceptions of the documentary for different audiences, almost as if it's not sure which path to take.
In Pára-me de Repente o Pensamento, Mr. Pelicano clearly uses a bag of cinematic tricks to reach the greatest possible audience - artful editing, wide screen visuals, carefully composed pictures, floating layered typography. It may seem somewhat picky or unfair to point this out, and in itself there are no problems with using these elements if they make sense within the stylistic plan of the film. But ultimately they're surplus to requirements in a film whose strengths lie in the empathetic observation of its subjects: the inmates of the Conde Ferreira psychiatric hospital in Oporto.
The former TV news cameraman manages to meld almost effortlessly with them, allowing them to exist as human beings in their own time and space; here, their difference does not set them apart, it makes them more "like us", painting the hospital as a mirror of a larger society. Had this been all of the film, then Pára-me de Repente o Pensamento would have been a good documentary; the problem is there's more to the story.
Mr. Pelicano also accompanies actor Miguel Borges, who comes to live inside the hospital for a two-week residency, workshopping with the inmates and researching a character. Within the closed world of the hospital, the director captures a sense of equality and equanimity that the arrival of this "intruder" disrupts: by training his camera on Mr. Borges as an alternate "guide" that will allow us to further understand the inmates, he merely makes them recede, by underlining again their difference.
Once the actor - a "sane" person researching what "insanity" is - is part of the mix, the film reinstates the difference between "us" and "them", "sane" and "insane". And in so doing, it reasserts its doubt about what kind of documentary wants to be: one that is true to its subjects, or one that wants to also reach a wider audience? Does it want its piece of cake regardless of whether it eats it, or does it want to both have it and eat it? In this particular case, that indecision is fatal to a film that has many good elements and a sympathetic, well-meaning can-do attitude.
PÁRA-ME DE REPENTE O PENSAMENTO
Director and cinematographer Jorge Pelicano; film editors Pedro Mouzinho and Mr. Pelicano; producers Renata Amaro and Rosa Teixeira da Silva; production company Até ao Fim do Mundo
Screened October 17th 2014, Lisbon (DocLisboa 2014 advance screener)
Pára-me de repente o pensamento - Trailer oficial from Até ao Fim do Mundo on Vimeo.