For his first feature film, Suicídio Encomendado (2009), writer/director Artur Serra Araújo started out with a great premise - a despondent man hires a suicide consultancy to help him kill himself - then turned what would have been a great black-comedy short into a bloated, unfunny feature. Now, on his sophomore effort, Mr. Serra Araújo proves again he has the necessary technical chops and a degree of ease with actors, and is yet again let down by his own scripting.

     Where before he'd extended a good short gag into an unwieldy 90 minutes, A Moral Conjugal looks like three different shorts hurriedly and haphazardly thrown together into a seriously flawed whole, bound to leave any viewer feeling bewildered and confused. The first sign something is not quite right comes at the end of the pre-credit sequence where an illicit affair is callously broken up and followed by a car accident; from that particular moment onwards, plausibility is out the window and the least of the writer/director's worries. A Moral Conjugal starts out as disquieting melodrama as hypochondriac doctor Octávio (Dinarte Branco) and sultry medical representative Manuela (São José Correia) enter an illicit affair, in what is undoubtedly the best section of the film. 40 minutes in, it shifts into a tiresome black comedy as Manuela and her sister Sara (Catarina Wallenstein) attempt to hide a dead body from her boyfriend Abel (José Wallenstein), whom she fears is involved in possible terrorist activities; finally, it morphs into bizarre Tales of the Unexpected-like satire before coming to an abrupt ending that fails to properly explain the whole plot.

     The shifting between genres wouldn't be a problem if Mr. Serra Araújo navigated it more smoothly, but nothing is ever properly reasoned through, simply asking the viewer to take at face value an outlandishly convoluted relay plot that pushes plausibility beyond the breaking point. The glossy veneer of artificiality seen throughout in the designer art direction, precise camera setups and cool cinematography merely underline just how whimsical and fanciful the entire enterprise is, its script hanging loose all over the place, giving its solid cast little to do with the one-note characters they're given. There's an obvious visual storytelling talent here - it's the writing that lets the side down, and it does so seriously.

Cast: Dinarte Branco, Maria João Bastos, São José Correia, Catarina Wallenstein, José Wallenstein

Director and writer: Artur Serra Araújo
Cinematography: Pedro Azevedo  (colour)
Music: Pedro Marques
Designer and costumes: Zézinha Araújo
Editor: Eugénio Marques
Producer: Francisco Bravo Ferreira (FBF Filmes in co-production with RTP)
Portugal, 2012, 99 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 10 (Lisbon), October 8th 2012


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