The truth must come out. I did not "get" the late Paulo Rocha (1935-2012) at first.

     I couldn't, really; I could have only seen his first films on the occasional TV screening or at the Cinemateca Portuguesa, and I would have seen them "out of time" so to speak, but I was looking elsewhere at the time. So the first of his films I got to see "in time", when I was starting out as a cub reviewer, were his later, more baroque and less impressive works. That is why watching again his one-two punch of an opening gambit with 1963's Os Verdes Anos and 1966's Mudar de Vida packs such a wallop. In a country acclaimed around the world by its auteurs such as the late Manoel de Oliveira and the late João César Monteiro, that Mr. Rocha is not spoken of in the same tones, even if only for his first two features, is a wrong that needs to be righted.

     True: his career did not follow the same path of many of his contemporaries, with only nine, very uneven features spread out over 50 years, and a struggle to get them made that seemed to elude both Messrs. Oliveira and Monteiro once their 1980s/1990s heyday got going. But to watch today Os Verdes Anos and Mudar de Vida, gloriously restored (under the supervision of Pedro Costa) to the way they must have looked like when that first print was struck back in the 1960s, feels like finding long lost treasure. And the word should not be used lightly. Mr. Rocha may have never again found his way as clearly and as magnificently as he did in this first pair of pictures; and his final work, 2011's Se Eu Fosse Ladrão... Roubava, released concurrently with these two restored versions, is more interesting as a sort of film à clef than as a stand-alone picture. (More on that in a later posting.)

     This first flowering of his talent, though, is a magnificent reveal, suggesting an artist who arrives on the scene fully formed, dovetailing with the appearance of the short-lived "Cinema Novo" movement that mirrored the "new waves" sprouting all over the world. The "Cinema Novo" brought a true fresh breeze of modernism into the staid Portuguese milieu of the time, spearheaded by the work of producer António da Cunha Telles, who backed Os Verdes Anos as his first production.

     Os Verdes Anos is a time capsule of early 1960s Portugal under the pretense of a stylized romantic tragedy, a twist on the country-mouse-meets-city-mouse story, the old tale of the small-town rube learning to live in the big city. 19-year-old apprentice shoemaker Júlio (Rui Gomes) comes to Lisbon to earn a living and send money back to the family, under the aegis of his uncle Afonso (Paulo Renato), and becomes infatuated with Ilda (Mr. Rocha's muse and egerie, Isabel Ruth), a feisty live-in maid for a bourgeois couple living nearby.

     But it turns out that the the young man is seething with the sense of missing out on something - a sense that underlay, unspoken, the society of the time. Portugal in the early sixties is representes as a two-tier society - the haves and the have-nots, the masters and the servants, the elders and the youngsters, the elites and the rabble, enforced through a suffocating, greyish pressure. Stuck between his uncle's cynical, every-man-for-himself survivalism and his paramour's can-do pragmatism, Júlio finds himself chafing at the lack of opportunities the world has laid out for him.

     Shot in and around the iconic Avenida de Roma/Avenidas Novas area of Lisbon, then recently urbanised but still surrounded by landfills, plots of green and unzoned backyards, Os Verdes Anos also uses space as a signifier - how, even within the "new town" looking towards the feature, the presence of the countryside still encroaches, suggesting a country stuck in two gears, torn between looking back and moving forward. The architecture is here both promise and trap, just as Mr. Rocha's elegantly simple but never simplistic handling makes the whole thing even more affecting, reminding of Michelangelo Antonioni's studies in landscape and alienation.

     Could all of this have been visible, even understood, at the time? The dour tone of the plot, forcing the hapless Júlio into a desperate, catastrophic downward spiral, certainly had little to do with what was passing as homegrown filmmaking at the time. Yet, 50 years later, Os Verdes Anos remains a wondrous, touching film both of its time and of our time, especially in the beautifully restored black-and-white tones of Luc Mirot's contrasted cinematography.

(first of three, to be continued in Mudar de Vida)

Portugal, 1963
87 minutes
Cast Isabel Ruth, Rui Gomes, Alberto Ghira, Cândida Lacerda, Carlos José Teixeira, Harry Wheeland, Irene Dyne, Júlio Cleto, Manuel de Oliveira, Óscar Acúrcio, Ruy Furtado, Paulo Renato
Director Paulo Rocha; screenwriters Mr. Rocha and Nuno Bragança; cinematographer Luc Mirot (b&w); composer Carlos Paredes; production and costume designers Alda Cruz and Rafael Calado; editor Margareta Mangs; production company Produções Cunha Telles
Screened May 6th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor press screening) 

PAULO ROCHA : 50 ANOS DE CINEMA - teaser 3 from Midas Filmes on Vimeo.


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