Some stories are so much things of their time that, once removed from the particular context that generated them and in which they resonated with people, they all but lose meaning and dissolve in thin air. Such seems to be the case of Portuguese columnist and writer Margarida Rebelo Pinto's debut novel, Sei Lá, a phenomenal success upon its 1999 publication but a late-comer to the big screen in 2014, despite having been originally optioned in 2000.

     Shot and released in 2013/2014, when Portugal remains in the throes of economic recession and austerity, when film production and reception is at its lowest point in decades, Sei Lá is a competently made but instantly forgettable production without a single iota of personality or even investment from its helmer, the estimable Joaquim Leitão. It's the perfect example of an idea of filmmaking that assumes that stunt casting (like that of well-known TV personality Ana Rita Clara), soap-opera-level scripting with a story about how the well-off are unlucky at love and limited production values are enough to make a theatrical picture, though the end result proves to anyone that this is much more of a small screen proposition. Worse: its throwback to an affluent mid-to-late 1990s era of conspicuous consumerism and aspirational social climbing (the film remains set in 1999), with the rise of reality television and "people" magazines that would literally flatten the local pop culture over the following decade seems, nowadays, either a bad joke or, at least, a clueless one.

     Essentially, Sei Lá is a pale Sex and the City rip-off about the romantic issues of four well-off Lisbon friends who are part of the "beautiful people" circles, centred around the romantic Madalena (Leonor Seixas), the Carrie Bushnell equivalent, who dreams of being a serious journalist but has to make do with working for a gossip magazine. She is also in love with a mysterious Spaniard (David Mora) who, early on, is revealed to be a Basque terrorist, and lets herself be seduced by a mysterious Lisboner (António Pedro Cerdeira) who, in fact, is a secret agent investigating the terrorist. Ms. Rebelo Pinto's script, a saddening piece of high-concept derivative fluff, has all the (non-existent) depth of a bad Sex and the City episode with none of the wit, spewing out a staggering series of platitudes about the relationships between women and men that are passed off as profound and borne out of personal experience but end up being more risible than anything.

     There's really little worth critiquing in the cast and crew's correct yet anonymous professionalism, something that only undermines how the project seems to be rather pointless: Mr. Leitão is one of the few local directors working for the general-audience mainstream, but Sei Lá is so anonymous that it becomes painfully clear his heart is not in it, and the cast has nothing to work with in the archetypal, soap-opera characters whose arc is exclusively restricted to their romantic involvements. Nothing wrong with that by itself; it's just that even derivative fluff needs a certain conviction and lightness of touch to work, and there is none of either to be found here, ending in one of the least convincing and most hilariously unbelievable dénouements ever seen in a mainstream picture. Why this was ever a successful book is hardly understandable from this mish-mash of a film.

Portugal 2014
110 minutes
Cast: Leonor Seixas, António Pedro Cerdeira, Ana Rita Clara, Gabriela Barros, Patrícia Bull, Pedro Granger, Rita Pereira, Renato Godinho, Rui Unas, David Mora
Director Joaquim Leitão; screenwriter Margarida Rebelo Pinto; based on Ms. Rebelo Pinto's novel Sei Lá; cinematographer Luís Branquinho (colour, widescreen); composer José M. Afonso; art director João Torres; costumes Paulo Gomes; editor Pedro Ribeiro; producer Tino Navarro, MGN Filmes in association with Zon Audiovisuais
Screened March 20th 2014 (distributor press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 4, Lisbon)


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