(third of three, continued from Mudar de Vida)

Much of what had changed around Paulo Rocha after his two first films was evidently social and political - the country was no longer in the throes of a totalitarian regime, society was no longer as grey and as stifling as before.

     But film production remained somewhat erratic, a roulette of state financings and risk-taking producers; by effectively becoming his own producer from then on, Mr. Rocha fell between the cracks of that system. Continuing production issues plagued his films, some of which were either barely released or were seen with significant delays, up to this very last completed picture of his: Se Eu Fosse Ladrão, Roubava - copyrighted 2011, but only screened internationally in 2013 at the Locarno festival, and released commercially in Portugal in 2015 (accompanying the restorations of Os Verdes Anos and Mudar de Vida).

     Suffice to say, the initial project of a more autobiographical fictional narrative (to be called Olhos Vermelhos) also changed in due course, both because of practical impossibilities and of illness (Mr. Rocha, already ill during the shoot, would die in December 2012 before the film was effectively publicly screened). What came out was a film à clef, a collagist essay of newly-shot narative material and archival excerpts lifted from his entire oeuvre. It's a bewildering work for those who did not follow his career over time, but fascinating in the peculiar resonances it reveals, the connections between disparate works it highlights, like a critical essay made film.

     Se Eu Fosse Ladrão seems to highlight the echoes and rhyming patterns between Mr. Rocha's films, whether narrative features or documentary, illuminated through the refracted prism of a tale inspired by his own father's life; not so much a narrative as a mosaic of drifting fragments, invoked at leisure. Mr. Rocha's interest in rural life and traditions as a fountain of storytelling seems to return to its primal origins (the scene of his grandfather's death in a shack is a mirror image of Júlia's deathbed in Mudar de Vida, and is also mirrored in other scenes here presented); his simple, almost classical way with framing and camerawork is also made to be a uniting thread throughout.

     The film also shows how the director's strengths always laid in a poetic, unhurried observation, rather than in the far-fetched baroque narratives that crept up in his final fictional features (1998's O Rio do Ouro, 2000's A Raiz do Coração and 2004's Vanitas ou o Outro Mundo). For all that, Se Eu Fosse Ladrão features flashes of the director's style, teems with clues and recurring threads, but its self-referentiality is unlikely to make much sense to anyone who's not been exposed to the post-1960s films.

     Therein, in fact, lies the reason why I'm incapable of adhering more enthusiastically to what is clearly a last will and testament, maybe even a gravestone to be erected: unless you have seen everything that came before, seeing this first will be like getting to know James Joyce through reading only Ulysses. It's a tantalizing but hermetic experience, equal parts frustrating and fascinating; hardly a triumphant conclusion to a career that deserved better, more of a half-baked coda for amateurs only, offering little interest to those not in the know. I would have never "got" Paulo Rocha from seeing Se Eu Fosse Ladrão first; it is only through watching Os Verdes Anos and Mudar de Vida that you understand his promise and his talent.

     That Paulo Rocha rose to the heights of two extraordinary features in a row is to be cherished, and to see them is to recognise a superbly talented filmmaker who never reached such heights again. Start there and you will "get" him.

     Leave Se Eu Fosse Ladrão... Roubava for much later. After you "got" him.

Portugal, 2011
87 minutes
Cast Isabel Ruth, Luís Miguel Cintra, Chandra Malatitsch, Joana Bárcia, Carla Chambel, Raquel Dias, Márcia Breia, João Cardoso, João Pedro Vaz
Director Paulo Rocha; screenwriters João Viana, Regina Guimarães and Mr. Rocha; cinematographer Acácio de Almeida (colour); art director Acácio Carvalho; costumes Manuela Bronze; editor Edgar Feldman; producer Mr. Rocha; production companies Gafanha Filmes in co-production with RTP
Screened May 9th 2015, Lisbon

PAULO ROCHA : 50 ANOS DE CINEMA - TRAILER from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.


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