Portuguese director João Canijo continues to explore a high-wire act, neither hardcore auteurism nor cookie-cutter audience-pleasing, that is difficult to sustain anywhere in the world and that Portugal does not seem to embrace at all. For a number of years now he has worked in a juxtaposition of classic dramatic genres with Portuguese working class settings, whether the world of Portuguese immigrants in France (Ganhar a Vida) or a rural brothel (Noite Escura). His latest narrative fiction, the masterpiece Sangue do Meu Sangue, set in the suburban projects of Lisbon was borderline soap opera material redeemed by its earnest desire to find the person inside the character. He does this by asking his actors to go on lengthy research and immersion in the actual settings of his films.

     Portugal, um Dia de Cada Vez is a documentary born of that desire to connect the director's filmmaking to the real world, as well as of a number of research trips made to rural Portugal by his regular actress Anabela Moreira in preparation for the director's next fiction feature (about the pilgrimages to the Fátima sanctuary). But it is also born out of both director and actress' recent experience documenting the life of the women in the Northern fishing community of Caxinas, documented in the remarkable hour-long Obrigação and its less successful feature expansion É o Amor

     At the heart of Portugal is, then, both the desire to anchor a forthcoming feature in reality and to create a "scrapbook" of what real daily life is like outside the big cities. This is, then, an introductory companion piece to an equally forthcoming documentary series for television, one that Mr. Canijo himself defines not so much as a film of his but as a collaborative work with Ms. Moreira (who shot most of the footage on her own) and longtime editor João Braz. 

     There's a wealth of great material in here, a genuine respect for the people on-screen, a desire for the camera to merely witness things as they are - and some of the elderly women that Ms. Moreira accompanies are clearly happy to have someone interested in them, as a way to break up their solitude and their routines. It paints a portrait of small town communities whose days are built around the work that needs to be done, or around the television soap operas that allow for an escape from the grey reality. It's a mostly matriarchal country, where women keep the engines running and seem to bear the brunt of all personal tragedies and successes. 

     But, as a standalone feature-length film, it simply doesn't work. There's a lot of possibility in the material shot, but very little structure to it; it seems far too often as a simple assemblage of moments, a "highlights reel" or work-in-progress that simply lays these moments out end to end without truly creating a whole out of the pieces. The approach - no contextualisating voiceover and purely geographic information to identify each segment - is consistent with much of contemporary documentary filmmaking, but while there's often a unity of tone or a linear structure that gives a through-line to the piece, no such thing exists here. 

     Portugal ends up resolving itself in a loose series of illustrative, demonstrative vignettes with no apparent overarching theme, the film's interest ebbing and flowing with the intrinsic strength of each of them. This might eventually work at a 90-minute length but, at over two and a half hours, it becomes bewilderingly overlong, even kind of pointless - especially coming from filmmakers that have done much better work in the past. Last time Mr. Canijo presented a work-in-progress, it was the remarkable hour-long short Obrigação - and that was much better than the final feature version. There's enough good material here to make the case the announced television series is worth waiting for; as a feature, though, it's sprawling, shapeless, a huge disappointment. 

Portugal, 2015, 156 minutes
Directed by João Canijo and Anabela Moreira; camera Ms. Moreira; film editor João Braz; produced by Pedro Borges, for Midas Filmes
Screened October 21st 2015, Ideal, Lisbon, DocLisboa advance press screening

PORTUGAL - UM DIA DE CADA VEZ trailer from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.


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