I've always found it somewhat weird that Portugal's current premier film festival is somewhat unable to attract top-tier Portuguese films for its competition. Weird it may be, but you really have to know the specifics of the local milieu, and its constant cut-throat jockeying for position and status, to understand why this is. Some of it is understandable - for someone like Pedro Costa, a competition berth at Indie is a step back from Locarno or Cannes, unable to provide the larger exposure an A-list festival gives. Some of it isn't.
The truth of the matter is, it seems to be a struggle just making sure IndieLisboa even has a competitive section for Portuguese features, and while the festival tries hard every year, it still has to settle for what it can. Also, the fact that so much of the current Portuguese production is working within the mode of creative non-fiction means an unavoidable overlap with what the documentary fest DocLisboa is looking for for its own competition. And yet, the festival has been able to excavate the occasional gem or signpost directors (for instance, Gonçalo Tocha, whose It's the Earth, not the Moon swept the festival circuit a couple of years ago, won the Portuguese competition with his 2007 debut Balaou).
So, to this year's Portuguese crop: four features in the official competition, but sadly none that will stick in the mind the way some of its predecessors did. First off the gate over the weekend was The Room You Take, the second feature from film editor Pedro Filipe Marques, who worked with both Mr Costa (in Colossal Youth) and Miguel Gomes (co-editing the Arabian Nights triptych) and made quite a splash in 2011 with his debut A Nossa Forma de Vida. That film was a patient, observational window into the daily life of an elderly couple (the director's own grandparents); its follow-up is equally observational but much more ambitious and sprawling and, ultimately, disappointing.
The irony is that, while Mr Marques has extensive experience as an editor, The Room You Take feels like an unfinished edit. Less a straight-forward documentary than a metaphorical essay, the film purports to be a meditation on the current state of culture in Portugal: starting off from the demolition of a Lisbon theatre, it asks what place can a spectator take in a country where venues are shutting down or being demolished, and where culture is an afterthought long being given lip service by the powers that be.
The film aims to shake that complacency and lead the viewer into asking what can he do to reverse course, but it does so in quite a roundabout way; over the course of nearly three hours, Mr Marques cross-edits between animals in a zoo, actors in their dressing-rooms before or after a theatre performance and the ruins of the ABC theatre. His camera is constantly placed in the unseen "reverse shot" position, as a viewer/voyeur placed where the actors usually are and looking not at the stage but beyond it, and in so doing underlines how, in a way, everyone, even the viewer, is always performing for an audience, even if it is only an audience of one (or, in one case of pre-performance jitters, two).
Though it shares the observational qualities of A Nossa Forma de Vida, The Room You Take lacks the clarity and linearity of its predecessor. Its sprawling length often feels as if Mr Marques was reluctant to let go of specific sequences even if they added nothing to or merely reiterated what had come before; the prose-poetic voiceover clarifies as much as obfuscates what the director wants to say with the film. As much as I liked parts of it, it felt to me as if The Room You Take was a journey aiming towards a destination it never actually reached.
O LUGAR QUE OCUPAS
PT, 2016, 167 minutes
DIR/CAM, Pedro Filipe Marques; SCR/ED, Mr Marques and Rita Palma; PROD Marta Pessoa, Ms. Palma, Mr. Marques and João Pinto Nogueira; Três Vinténs