So, more about IndieLisboa 2016's Portuguese selection. I've already touched upon Pedro Marques' The Room You Take, an intriguing but ultimately disappointing sophomore effort that would need a proper editing job to realize its full potential. Two more films have since played the feature-length competition - the fourth and final entry, José Barahona's Brazilian co-prod I Was in Lisbon and Thought of You, adapted from Brazilian writer Luiz Ruffato's popular novel, screens today - and albeit with different qualities and flaws, they're both equally disappointing.
Sérgio Tréfaut's Treblinka is a relative disappointment. It's by no means a bad movie, something that the director seems incapable of doing. And if you have followed his work ever since Lisboetas won the initial IndieLisboa competition in 2004 - and his work has indeed travelled - you will recognize many of his traits as a thoughtful storyteller who often takes roundabout paths to get where he wants to go. Having said that, Treblinka, the closest he has ever got to an essay film, doesn't really seem to want to go anywhere. It's partly by design, but also partly by accident; this short, hour-long feature began life as a documentary inspired by Marceline Loridan-Ivens' experience in the WWII Nazi death camps, but somewhere along the way became a sort of "phantom ride" through the railway tracks of 20th century memory.
Drawing on survivor Chil Rajchman's diary of his life in Treblinka, whose words are spoken off-screen in Russian, a silent unnamed survivor (iconic Portuguese actress Isabel Ruth, muse of the late Paulo Rocha) makes a trans-Siberian train journey haunted by the ghosts of her camp experiences. It's a screenscape as bleak and chilly as it is seductively enveloping, impeccably realized, but its intelligence isn't enough to distance it from the ever-growing pack of artworks about the Holocaust, and its slightness suggests it's either part of a longer, yet incomplete, whole, or an attempt at salvaging a different project that didn't quite turn out as expected. There's something here that reminded me of both Mr Tréfaut's earlier (and more fully realized) true-story essay-fiction, Viagem a Portugal, and of Mauro Herce's impressionistic Dead Slow Ahead, but I came out of Treblinka certainly impressed but not convinced.
Impressionistic, yes, but to the point of opaqueness, Marcelo Felix's sophomore effort Paul left me seriously bewildered. I'd really liked Eden's Ark, his 2011 essay on the recording of history and memory, but this new project, an overly ponderous meta-fictional set of nested Russian dolls surrounding a translator in the process of subtitling a film, lost me about halfway through with its somewhat mystifying insistence in leaving everything open-ended and unexplained. Per the press notes, and a very interesting interview I did with Mr Felix, that vagueness is by design as well, aiming at inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks as it dives from the framing narrative of the translator working on the subtitles into the film she is working on. This film, about a glass blower with identity issues, is designed as part documentary and part 1960s Russian filmmaking, spoken in... Estonian. A Tchekhovian spin-off that sees the blower's supervisor ambling through nature can either be seen a parallel plot line or an entirely different film - but do they exist, are they connected, or is everything merely extrapolated by the translator into her own projections? We'll never know, and despite the evident care with which Mr Felix constructs his labyrinth (shot with Volta à Terra director João Pedro Plácido as DP), after a while the apparent aimlessness of the project becomes a self-perpetuating motion that doesn't get anywhere, so there's not much reason to care anyway.
That's why it was such a pleasure to find something as forcefully personal and enjoyable as veteran João Botelho's take on Manoel de Oliveira's oeuvre, presented out of competition as a special screening. Mr Botelho is an idiosyncratic director with as many hits or misses, but he is also a full-blown cinephile, and one of the many who worships at the throne of the late director, who died in April 2015 at the extraordinary age of 107, as the defining figure of Portuguese cinema in the 20th century. Mr. de Oliveira himself had a small role in Mr. Botelho's debut, the wonderfully experimental Conversa Acabada, and many of the younger director's films reflected and refracted in some way the late master's influence. What he does in Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me is rather wonderfully genre-busting: neither a rigid biographical documentary nor a talking-heads job, closer in spirit to Manuel Mozos' impressionistic (that word again!) 2014 homage to João Bénard da Costa Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved, its almost like attending a master class on film, or seeing a visual equivalent of Robert Bresson's seminal book of aphorisms Notes on the Cinematographer.
Positing that Mr. de Oliveira never made films but, instead, "cinema", the film's first two-thirds are a marvelous primer on his work, with extensive inserts from many of his key pictures, narrated by Mr Botelho himself in a conversational, enthusiastic tone of voice. I have my doubts about the last third, where he dares to film a story Mr. de Oliveira wrote but never shot, as a black-and-white silent melodrama that emulates the style and attempts to invoke the spirit of his late master. For my money, Mr Botelho got there better with his 2008 feature The Northern Land, which could pass easily for a forgotten Oliveira, but the romantic gesture of showing just how much he owes to the director that has come to symbolize Portuguese auteurism is sincere and touching, and makes for a wonderfully enjoyable wotsit that is highly recommended to fans of both directors and to those who would like to know more about Portuguese film and especially Manoel de Oliveira's extraordinary career.
Treblinka Trailer ENG from Faux on Vimeo.
PT, 2016, 61 minutes
CAST Kirill Kashlikov, Isabel Ruth; NARRATION Mr. Kashlikov, Nina Guerra; DIR/SCR Sérgio Tréfaut, inspired by the book by Chil Rajchman Treblinka: A Survivor's Memory; DP João Ribeiro; MUS Alfredo Costa Monteiro; ED Pedro Marques; PROD Catarina Almeida and Mr. Tréfaut; Faux
Trailer - PAUL a film by Marcelo Felix (Portugal 2016) from C.R.I.M. on Vimeo.
PT, 2015, 71 minutes
CAST Alice Medeiros, Rómulo Ferreira, Crista Alfaiate, Mafalda Lencastre, Dimitris Mostrous; DIR/SCR/ED Marcelo Félix; DP João Pedro Plácido; MUS Sándor Veress; ART DIR Ana Simões; PROD Isabel Machado and Joana Ferreira; CRIM Produções
O CINEMA, MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA E EU
PT, 2016, 79 minutes
CAST Mariana Dias, António Durães, Ângela Marques, Maria João Pinho, Leonor Silveira, Marcelo Urgeghe, Miguel Nunes; DIR/SCR João Botelho; "The Gloved Woman" based on an original story by Manoel de Oliveira; DP João Ribeiro; MUS Nicholas McNair; ED João Braz; PROD Alexandre Oliveira; Ar de Filmes