For a brief moment, it seemed that João Salaviza was going to be the "man of the hour", the next big breakout director of Portuguese arthouse film, based on the one-two punch of a Cannes Palme d'or followed by a Berlin Golden Bear for his short films Arena and Rafa, respectively. And then... nothing.
Montanha, his debut feature, was pretty much done by the beginning of 2015, but Berlin, Cannes, Locarno came and went with no sight of the film in its slates. While the air was being sucked out of the room by the sheer daring of Miguel Gomes' ambitious Arabian Nights, Mr. Salaviza's feature found a minor berth at Venice's Critics Week, destined apparently to suffer the same fate as so many other films in the crowded circuit of parallel sidebars or second-tier festivals.
The difference is that the director's modest but mature debut actually does deserve a better shot. To be sure, it is a fragile and not exactly original tale of suburban adolescence at a crossroads: that of sullen teenager David (David Mourato), who has been living with his grandfather while Mónica, his mother (Maria João Pinho), works abroad, and gets the rug pulled out from under him when grandpa is admitted to hospital. In its diffuse plotting and careful look at disaffected adolescent malaise, Montanha can remind you a lot of Teresa Villaverde's films; but Mr. Salaviza's strength isn't so much in scripting as it is in carefully composing a mood that will allow the actors to make visible what's neither visible nor said. (In that sense, the way that the director films the urban landscapes of Lisbon and its suburbs reminded me often of the late Paulo Rocha - not entirely unreasonable since Mr. Salaviza is the son of Edgar Feldman, a regular collaborator of Mr. Rocha's).
The claustrophobic sense of opaque heat transported by DP Vasco Viana's blinding end-of-summer light are as important as plot or dialogue to explain what's going on in David's head as he finds himself lost in what seems like a dead-end street, left to his own devices. The director's maturity lies in not rushing any of that, and instead trusting that the film will find its way through character and the the viewer will allow himself to be interested enough to follow along.
Montanha is quite clearly a step forward from Mr. Salaviza's shorts, which had been mere swatches of something that never had the time to develop properly and remained a sketch; freed of the time constraints, the director manages to create the necessary setting for his tale of a kid coming of age to make full sense. It is to be hoped that this fragile yet resilient little film will eventually find its place within the global arthouse circuit; it would be a shame for it to unjustly disappear without a trace.
Portugal, France, Germany, 2015, 92 minutes
Starring David Mourato, Maria João Pinho, Ema Tavares, Rodrigo Perdigão, Cheyenne Domingues, Carloto Cotta, Ana Cris
Directed and written by João Salaviza; cinematographer Vasco Viana; art director Nádia Henriques; costume designer Margarida Ruas; film editors Edgar Feldman and Mr. Salaviza; produced by Maria João Mayer and François d'Artemare, for Filmes do Tejo II and Films de l'Après-midi in co-production with ZDF, ARTE and Hérodiade Films
Screened October 20th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon
MONTANHA de João Salaviza TRAILER from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.