I understand that saying this may be self-evident, but being a great screenwriter does not automatically make you a great director. The case of Portuguese veteran Carlos Saboga comes to the fore because the writer of Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, with a good number of respectable credits in Portuguese cinema, fumbles so completely his sophomore effort as a director that it's a wonder this even got released.

     After an anonymous but not entirely disastrous debut with the throwaway Photo, A uma Hora Incerta is a bewildering jumble of characters and plotlines that might have made more sense on the printed page as a somewhat oneiric Gothic novella, but fails to even coalesce as a cohesive film. As in Photo, Mr. Saboga is seemingly following one story while actually advancing another, both set in Lisbon during World War II.

     Using the city's neutral status in the middle of war-torn Europe as a plot trigger, the tale takes mostly place in a shuttered family hotel, painted as a "black hole" that sucks everyone in, and circles around Ilda (Joana Ribeiro), a spoilt teenager who stays home after school in a bubble of her own, tending to an ailing, mute mother (Ana Padrão) and fantasizing about her strong-silent-type father (Paulo Pires). Said father is actually an inspector for the secret police, who takes a shine to a couple of mysterious French refugees (Judith Davis and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), and shelters them in the shed in the garden.

     Ilda finds out about the guests and goes into fits of protective, incestuous jealousy - but why she should feel this way, and why does his father bring home the refugees, is never properly explained, merely suggested only to be abandoned almost immediately as the film rotates to the next set of characters. Everything begins in media res, and nearly everyone is a mere narrative pretext for something to happen; most of the characters seem to be screenwriter's conceits rather than flesh-and-blood people, with little or nothing an actor can hang on to. The exceptions are Ms. Ribeiro, who finds in Ilda the correct mixture of defiance, desire, entitlement and vulnerability, and Pedro Lima as a sleazy, opportunistic police officer. Everyone else is left adrift in a film that comes off as a bizarre, disjointed cadavre exquis, suggesting something salvaged as best as possible in the editing suite.

     Photo wasn't much good, but at least it hung together; that's more than can be said for this, and it's all the more puzzling coming from a screenwriter with years of experience.

Portugal, 2015, 74 minutes
Starring Joana Ribeiro, Paulo Pires, Judith Davis, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Filipa Areosa, Pedro Lima, Ana Padrão, Joana de Verona
Directed and written by Carlos Saboga; cinematography Mário Barroso (colour); composer Alain Jomy; art director Maria José Branco; costumes Marta do Vale; editor Monique Dartonne; producer Paulo Branco, for Leopardo Filmes
Screened September 17th 2015, Medeia Monumental 1, distributor press screening

A UMA HORA INCERTA, um filme de Carlos Saboga from Leopardo Filmes on Vimeo.


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