Director Francisco Manso and his regular collaborator, writer and playwright António Torrado, have been bringing to the screen little-known episodes of the Portuguese history for a while now, and find their highest-profile project in O Cônsul de Bordéus. It is a fictionalised take on the true story of Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who, as a consul in WWII France, challenged the orders of Portugal's fascist regime and signed travel documents for thousands of Jews wishing to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. Unfortunately, Sousa Mendes - who ended up dying in misery after the regime caught wind of his "treason" and was only rehabilitated decades later - didn't inspire either Mr. Torrado or Mr. Manso (here co-directing with the project's originator, Belgium-based Portuguese director João Corrêa) any more than his previous subjects did.

     As per their usual, O Cônsul de Bordéus is a flat and clumsy low-budget approximation of a historical epic, shot in the non-descript anonymous language of TV movies and scripted in the manichean shorthand of good vs. evil soap-opera heroics, minimizing the gravity of the actual events and unable to give its characters any depth beyond their pre-assigned roles as heroes and villains. Sousa Mendes himself, played with empathy and gusto by the ever-excellent Vítor Norte, even seems to be a secondary character in its own film; the story is told in flashback by world-famous maestro Francisco d'Almeida (Manuel de Blas), revealing to journalist Alexandra Schmidt (an unusually unconvincing Leonor Seixas) his true identity as Belgian Jewish refugee Aaron Apelman, who, as a teenager (João Monteiro), escaped through France with the help of Bordeaux rabbi Isaac Kruger (Carlos Paulo) and the good efforts of the consul. Even then, the film is poorly scripted: the story is constructed around the young Aaron's stay in Bordeaux, and mostly seen through his eyes, but the fact that he is nowhere to be seen in all the crucial moments that define Sousa Mendes' destiny, where he could obviously not have been present, creates serious plausibility problems; while the presence of the journalist in the modern-day interludes is so ill explained and under-scripted that her merely utilitarian presence quickly fades into irrelevance.

     Why this awkward plotting should be preferred to a straight-forward telling of the diplomat's life and tragic ending is unfathomable; there is a great story in here, but to frame it through somebody else's tale, especially in this form of cheap melodrama from an old-fashioned playbook, is bewildering to say the least. Plus, it's not enough to just frame it and film it as an earnest but instantly disposable TV movie, even if, on the whole, O Cônsul de Bordéus is a slightly better film than Mr. Manso's previous, mostly due to Mr. Norte's strong performance and to the inherent strength of the basic story. A less cobwebbed stylistic and narrative update would have been necessary for this to work; the tale of Aristides de Sousa Mendes remains to be told on the big screen as it should be.

Cast: Vítor Norte, Carlos Paulo, Manuel de Blas, João Monteiro, Leonor Seixas, Sara Barros Leitão, Joaquim Nicolau, Laura Soveral, Pedro Cunha

Directors: Francisco Manso, João Corrêa
Screenplay: António Torrado, João Nunes, from a screen story by Mr. Corrêa
Cinematography: José António Loureiro (colour)
Music: Henri Seroka
Designer: Fernanda Morais
Costumes: Marcelo Melendreras
Editor: Gonçalo Soromenho
Producer: José Mazeda (Take 2000 in co-production with Aiete-Ariane Films and Apus Productions)
Portugal/Spain/Belgium, 2011, 90 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener, Zon Audiovisuais offices (Lisbon), November 2nd 2012


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