The Miracle of Saint Anthony

In 1993, critic and essayist Augusto M. Seabra published a prescient column in the daily Público saluting a new generation of Portuguese filmmakers emerging in the short film format, usually little seen outside school or alternative circuits. The Vila do Conde International Short Film Festival, in a lovely beachside town a mere 30km from Portugal’s second city Oporto, was then becoming the key showcase of the work of this generation, comprising Miguel Gomes, João Pedro Rodrigues, Sandro Aguilar and many others – the cream of the crop of Portuguese directors post-Manoel de Oliveira and Pedro Costa.

The absence of opportunities elsewhere to programme local shorts eventually led the organisers, from 1994 onwards, to create a specific national slot for what was until then mostly an international competitive showcase, eventually growing in stature as to become the festival’s centrepiece section. Understandably, the 20th anniversary edition of Vila do Conde became an irresistible opportunity to look at the “state of the nation” in a 2012 that has been fraught with perils and wonders for Portuguese film.

The wonders: the one-two punch of February’s Berlinale, where João Salaviza’s Rafa won the short film Golden Bear, and Miguel Gomes’ Tabu took home the Alfred Bauer prize for most innovative work; the acclaim given to an American retrospective of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s brief but seminal work, little known even in their native country; festival selections for new films by João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata or Manoel de Oliveira.

The perils: the disparaging state of the financing system for Portuguese features, entirely dependent on state-disbursed monies collected from theatrical exhibition and television fees; the official state-run cinema structure, the Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual (ICA), all but shut down for lack of funds; culture taking a backseat demotion to a mere secretariat in the current centre-right government; the absence of alternative financing; the continuous divorce between Portuguese audiences and cinema.

Because of all this, Vila do Conde, whose Portuguese line-up was on paper one of the strongest in years, bringing together the cream of the pre-ICA shutdown production, practically demanded to be seen as a bellwether of the short form’s local health. And the 20th anniversary of the affectionately-known “Curtas” was indeed such a bellwether, but hardly in the expected ways. The “class of 2012”, in effect, confirmed a worrying downward trend felt in previous years’ competitive line-ups: a lack of truly inspiring, highly personal voices in a surprisingly uninspired generation of filmmakers.

Low Tide

There are, to be sure, promising names here. Pedro Flores’ Vazante (Low Tide) was a lovely, sensitive, perfectly poised study of loss in a fishing community seen through a child’s eyes; João Rosas’ Entrecampos, a rambling, leisurely look at the travails of a newly uprooted teenager’s early days in Lisbon, was however welcomed with surprisingly fierce derision.

Others, however, have yet to find a personal voice. Mariana Gaivão’s opaque tale of a lost firefighter, Solo (Soil), came across as a by-numbers version of Sandro Aguilar’s non-linear mood pieces – particularly in a year where Aguilar himself was in competition with the water-treading yet mesmerisingly accomplished Sinais de Serenidade por Coisas sem Sentido (Signs of Stillness Out of Meaningless Things); Miguel Fonseca’s As Ondas (The Waves) captured poignantly the end-of-summer melancholy but needed a stronger hand to become more than just a vignette.

Others failed to find the film in their material. Writer Possidónio Cachapa’s adaptation of his own novella, O Nylon da Minha Aldeia (Tissues from the Village), is a disjointed tale of village outcasts that strives for queer poetry but collapses into ridicule; Teresa Garcia’s A Tempestade (The Tempest), about an ill-fated affair between a rural housewife and a returning local writer, takes too long to effectively go nowhere.

More worrying, though, was the sense that even talented young directors are at a loss. In the Panorama sidebar, Posfácio nas Confecções Canhão (Posfácio at Confecções Canhão), a buffoonish exercise in deadpan burlesque that is technically impeccable but merely diverting, confirmed António Ferreira’s drift towards quirkiness. And after a promising if flawed feature debut with The Sword and the Rose, João Nicolau struck out with O Dom das Lágrimas (The Gift of Tears), an uninspired attempt at fairy-tale subversion that plays far too much like a Miguel Gomes/Eugène Green mash-up.

The Living Cry Too

As for the current “it boys” of Portuguese short film, Gabriel Abrantes and Basil da Cunha, their competitive entries suggest a wave of critical hype the films fail to support. Locarno winner Abrantes, a fine-arts man with a knack for colliding improbable universes, fell flat with the lacklustre Zwazo (Birds), set around a freeform staging of Aristophanes’ The Birds in Haiti. It’s a bewildering object that confirms him as a dilettante approaching cinema as visual art rather than as a filmic language and getting lost in the process. The Swiss-Portuguese Da Cunha, winner of Vila do Conde 2010 with À Côté, won again this year with Os Vivos Também Choram (The Living Cry Too), extending his fascination with and sympathetic look at the dispossessed of Lisbon’s peripheral shantytowns. It’s the director’s most accomplished work yet, intriguingly melding reality and fantasy in the tale of an alcoholic jack-of-all-trades, but there’s still a lack of personality in the filmmaking that leaves little lasting impression.

As the Flames Rose

It took the “dynamic duo” of João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, partners in life and in film and regular collaborators on each other’s work, to actually uphold the tradition of great modern Portuguese cinema. Guerra da Mata presented out of competition his solo debut, O Que Arde Cura (As the Flames Rose), with Rodrigues co-scripting and playing the lead; in turn, Rodrigues was in competition with Manhã de Santo António (Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day), co-scripted with Guerra da Mata, and both of them outstandingly shot by Tabu cinematographer Rui Poças.

Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day is a deadpan, dialogue-free look at the aftermath of a night spent partying, precisely choreographed as a sort of hungover, slow-motion zombie flash mob and shot as if an alien Big Brother was watching humankind and asking what the hell is going on. Even if slightly overlong, it’s by far the loosest, cheeriest work of a director usually not known for his sense of humour, though this is more the Roy Andersson variety of dry, poignant wit. As the Flames Rose, a dazzlingly hyper-stylised take on Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, is its polar opposite: tightly scripted and extremely controlled, it follows a telephone conversation between a man and the absent lover who has just broken up with him set against the Lisbon Chiado fire of 1988. It’s a remarkably assured debut whose smart, elaborate visual qualities are always in the service of the story.

Reconversão

Surprisingly, for consistency and coherence, the festival’s 20th anniversary commissions were, as a whole, better by far than the official selection. One series, 4 Films x 4 Directors, consisted of a carte blanche to four international directors to the festival to make a short set in the Vila do Conde/Oporto area with a local crew. Sergei Loznitsa’s O Milagre de Santo António (The Miracle of Saint Anthony), an enveloping, observational record of a religious holiday that brings in an unexpected lightness to the Russian director’s worldview, and Thom Andersen’s Reconversão, a layered hour-long look at Pritzker-winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura’s designs, taken as an example of art’s constant reinvention at the hands of time, were the program’s high points.

Obligation

Campus/Estaleiro, the second program of commissioned shorts, featured a number of Portuguese directors shooting, again on Vila do Conde/Oporto locations, with local crews entirely composed of film students who’d attended the festival’s own Campus film school program. Of the four works premiered (four more are currently filming), João Canijo’s Obrigação (Obligation) drew naturally more attention. Not just because Canijo’s national profile is currently riding high after last year’s extraordinary Blood of My Blood (though his international visibility remains undeservedly low), but also because he took head on the commission of documenting the daily life of the wives in the famously private fishing community of Caxinas, just outside Vila do Conde. The cut shown was an hour-long “work in progress” that will eventually become a feature-length documentary, fitting in perfectly with Canijo’s current interest in strong female figures and the enmeshing of age-old traditions and the contemporary world.

Graça Castanheira, adapting a book from geographer and academic Álvaro Domingues, presented A Rua da Estrada (A Road on a Street), a witty and insightful essay-film about the role and meaning of suburban and exurban roadside architecture. It’s a lively exercise in pop semiotics that plays like a more cheerful but never condescending take on Thom Andersen’s cinema of lost memory. Luís Matos Alves’ beautiful Um Rio Chamado Ave (A River Called Bird) and Pedro Flores’ placid Cinzas (Ensaio sobre o Fogo) (Ashes, a Fire Essay) are highly lyrical documentaries about the Ave river and the shepherd communities of the Gerês mountains respectively, finding a sweet spot between a record of landscapes and traditions and thoughtful essays on man’s relation to nature.

Above all, the Campus/Estaleiro program presented, through the variety of approaches and takes on their subjects, a clearer picture of the strengths of contemporary Portuguese cinema than the more unfocused competitive selection. These films, stubbornly local yet able to find a kernel of universality in their look at the world around them, were more representative of the Portuguese cinema’s – and, in a wider sense, of art film’s – ability to speak to wider audiences than a competitive selection mostly trying far too hard to be meaningful but unable to leave any sort of impression.

Vila do Conde’s 20th anniversary edition ended up being a bittersweet celebration of the festival’s history, underlined by the uncertainty that is facing Portuguese film as a whole and the short form in particular – and unable to give a wholly positive response as to what the future may hold.

Curtas Vila do Conde
7-15 July, 2012
Festival website: http://festival.curtas.pt/home-en/

About The Author

Jorge Mourinha is a film critic at Lisbon's daily newspaper Público and maintains film review blog The Flickering Wall.