Basil da Cunha is one of the most acclaimed young promises of Portuguese cinema thanks to a handful of well-received shorts - belying the fact that he is the Swiss son of Portuguese parents, whose film studies and initial career took place in Switzerland rather than Portugal. In many ways, though, the fact that he is an "alien" in the country of his family has shaped his cinema and has also been part of his strength, allowing him to take a dispassionate, understanding look at other strangers in strange lands.

     In Mr. da Cunha's work so far, he has taken an interest in the mostly African dispossessed living in the peripheral shantytowns of Lisbon; his feature-length debut, Até Ver a Luz, takes place in the Reboleira suburb where his two previous shorts, Nuvem and Os Vivos Também Choram, were set, with characters from those shorts recurring as well. In a way, Mr. da Cunha seems to be following in the footsteps of Pedro Costa's acclaimed work in the Fontainhas shantytown, though shot in a less austere, more classically narrative fashion. The tale of a loner (Pedro Ferreira) who finds himself in trouble with the local drug lord (João Veiga) over money owed, Até Ver a Luz has something of the film noir in it, stripped down to the skeletal, fatalistic plot that is then enriched by the director's attentive gaze over the rhythms, detail, moods and figures of this disaffected slum. Though there was a plotted script, Mr. da Cunha let the non-professional actors come up with the dialogue on their own, allowing their own lives to seep into the fictional characters they are playing.

     All fine and dandy, but the essential handicap of the director's shorts remains: his lack of a filmmaking personality, self-effaced behind the global language of a certain modern-day auteur cinema that focuses on small subjects and overlooked backgrounds, technically accomplished yet strangely impersonal. Though there's nothing inherently wrong with Até Ver a Luz as a motion picture, everything being in its right place, that is precisely the problem with this debut film: there's little to none lasting impression of an identity, just the sense of a well-executed exam by a director who has clearly found the subject he wants to follow and has the technique down pat but has not yet developed an identity or a style of his own.

Cast: Pedro Ferreira, João Veiga, Nelson da Cruz Duarte Rodrigues, Paulo Ribeiro
Director, writer: Basil da Cunha
Cinematography: Patrick Tresch  (colour)
Art director: Carlos Baessa de Brito
Editors: Renata Sancho, Mr. da Cunha, Émilie Morier
Producer: Elena Tatti  (Box Productions and Geneva University of Art and Design in association with RTS SSG SSR)
Switzerland, 2013, 99 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 2, Lisbon, July 23rd 2013


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