November 11, 2008
Quem és tu?, 2001
Something 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.