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November 2008 Archives

November 17, 2008

L'Arbre mort, 1987

arbre_mort.gifOstensibly framed as a postwar melodrama that loosely evokes Leo McCarey's Love Affair in its story of a shipboard encounter between two emotionally unavailable people, Joseph Morder's L'Arbre mort is also a tone piece that seeks to reconcile the space between love and death, history and memory, documentary and fiction. This duality is suggested in the diffused opening image of Jaime (Philippe Fano) abstractedly looking out into the open waters from the deck of a ship that plays out against an asynchronous, voiceover narration describing his long-awaited return to South America after completing his medical studies in Europe. With little to do on the transatlantic voyage home, Jaime strikes up a conversation with a fellow expatriate named Laura (Marie Serrurier) who has left her husband behind in Paris (played by Morder) to visit her widowed aunt and belatedly mourn the unexpected deaths of her parents during the war. Connected by a sense of ambivalence over their delayed homecoming, Jaime and Laura spend their idle time in each other's company before going their separate ways when the ship reaches its destination. But having returned to his seemingly idyllic, privileged life with his family and his beautiful fiancée, Sofia (Rosette), Jaime begins to grow more aimless and distant, wandering the streets in an attempt to recapture Laura's memory (and who in her desolation has, in turn, begun to search for a former lover who disappeared during the war). Fatefully meeting at a grand ball on the eve of revolution, Jaime and Laura soon find themselves at an intersection once again, torn between grief and rapture, past and present, home and exile.

In its brooding, elliptical tale of loss, separation, and displacement, L'Arbre mort shares kinship with Marguerite Duras's India Song and Jonas Mekas's diary films, where the impossibility of returning home is sublimated in a haunted quest for an elusive object of desire. Similar to Mekas's cinema, Morder's use of silent, Super 8mm film in conjunction with a separate narrative and musical soundtrack creates a disjunction between image and sound (which Duras also incorporates in India Song) that reinforce the distance and impreciseness of human memory. This disjunction is further reflected in Morder's rapid cut framing that reveal Jaime's disorientation and uncertainty over his alienating homecoming (most notably, in his isolated shot during the family reunion and subsequently, standing at a gateway in search for Laura). Ironically, it is in this state of disorientation - a descent into the unknown that is implied in the image of their Orphic journey down a winding staircase - that Laura is figuratively liberated from the realm of the dead: shedding the ghosts of an irretrievable past to emerge in the light of an uncertain, new dawn.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 17, 2008 | | Filed under 2008

November 11, 2008

Quem és tu?, 2001

quem_es_tu.gifSomething of a companion piece to Manoel de Oliveira's No, or the Vain Glory of Command, João Botelho's brooding and atmospheric Quem és tu? similarly explores the intersection of history and myth, empire and subjugation in its exposition on identity, nationhood, fate, and repression. Based on nineteenth century Romanticist author Almeida Garrett's three-act play, Frei Luís de Sousa on Portuguese nobleman turned Dominican monk, Manuel de Sousa Coutinho, the film chronicles three pivotal days in the lives of Manuel (Rui Morrison), his wife Madalena de Vilhena (Suzana Borges), and their consumptive, adolescent daughter Maria Noronha (Patrícia Guerreiro) that would lead to his spiritual conversion. Set in 1599 during Portugal's subjugation to Spain in the aftermath of the disastrous battle of Alcácer-Kebir, an early shot of a shadow crossing over Maria while she sleeps - subsequently revealed to be the apparition of King Sebastian (Bruno Martelo) who had led the ill fated crusade to Alcácer-Kebir - prefigures the theme of imprinted history in its implication of unreconciled ghosts casting a pall over the present. For Maria, the ghosts arrive in the form of hallucinations conjured by the poppies she places on her bed each evening to aid her sleep, embodied by the lost King Sebastian whose birth had represented the empire's illusive aspirations for restoring colonial and spiritual order (and burying its transgressions) after a debilitating settlement campaign in India, the Portuguese Inquisition (and with it, the expulsion and forced conversion of Jews), and a sweeping "new faith" ushered by the Protestant Reformation. But the ghosts of the past are not all figments of a fragile child's haunted imagination. Forced to relinquish their residence to the arriving Castilian governor, Manuel defies authority by burning down the castle, retreating to a house in Almada that Madalena once shared with her first husband, Dom João de Portugal who, years earlier, had accompanied King Sebastian on his doomed crusade and never returned. Now confronted with the memories of her own past transgressions - a harbored attraction to Manuel during her marriage to Dom João, a presumptive rush to claim widowhood in order to marry her lover, a child born under an unconsecrated union - Madalena's anxiety soon grows over her own impending moment of reckoning when the anniversary of King Sebastian's (and Dom João's) disappearance coincides with their arrival to Almada. Similar to Oliveira's No, or the Vain Glory of Command, Botelho reinforces the idea of history as a living continuum - both politically, in King Sebastian's figurative, casted shadow over a weakened, conquered people (note the tracking shot of dead warriors with exposed entrails in Alcácer-Kebir that recalls the image of a fleeing, mortally wounded Angolan insurgent in Oliveira's film), and morally, in the ambiguity of spiritual union and illegitimacy that challenge rigid, religious doctrine. Within this convergence, Maria's willful defiance over her parentage may be seen as a rejection of her physical and moral subjugation, where transcendence lies in the assertion of identity and not in its repressive negation.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 11, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, João Botelho