Framing a Sadness

By Paul Buck

Portuguese film offers a necessary – and innovative – reflection of a singular national identity

Hard on the heels of Chris Darke’s review of the state of cinema, as seen in books from France and Germany, in the last issue of Vertigo (Vol. 2, No.7, page 50), comes a volume fresh from Portugal, which is not so much concerned with whether cinema is lying on the mortuary slab, but with circling the question: what is Portuguese cinema?

Nuno Figueiredo and Dinis Guarda, the editors of Portugal: A Cinematographic Portrait, are both involved in championing their country’s films through staging festivals in various European cities (including London at the French Institute, ICA, Riverside and elsewhere). On future sorties, this book will become a statement to accompany them.

They are as intent on promoting documentary as fictional works, the particular make-up of cinema in Portugal indicating this line, pin-pointed by the filmmaker João Mário Grilo: ‘I am a documental cinematographer (…) I find it difficult to make purely fictional movies.’ His reasons are apparent in his own important essay, where he digs into the entwining of the film-maker with the political world.

The editors take their lead from João Bénard da Costa, the Director of the Portuguese Cinemateca, when he stated that if 20th century Portuguese art (and literature) was to vanish, and only some films survive, their images would be sufficient to testify to what it meant to be Portuguese. This is quoted more directly in one essay as ‘a claustrophobic, isolated universe, without any contact with the outside world, and a profound sadness.’ A good enough gauntlet from which the contributors can proceed. This viewpoint relates to the country’s 20th century being defined by the Salazar dictatorship, the 1974 Revolution and the subsequent rebuilding of its life and culture. Thus the benchmark of that year and its repercussions form the fulcrum of the book.

The final section, by Regina Guimarães and Saguenail, takes on a different form to portray the main issue. Using stills, it attempts to present a visual essay with captions, extracted from a series of six documentaries. It is only partially successful, as the writers themselves know, but it is in keeping with the outlook of the publisher, Dinis Guarda who, as editor of Numero, the country’s foremost contemporary magazine of visual arts, likes to explore as many approaches as possible.

The book is crammed with a succession of gems, and indeed some wonderful studies, like Paulo Filipe Monteiro’s essay The Burden of a Nation, the longest, with its comprehensive overview of the development and attitudes of many of the practitioners. The book’s solidity is its strength. By drawing from texts already written and presented elsewhere, the editors have put together a book intent on a long life, with depth rather than hasty journalistic scanning. It is a bilingual edition (Portuguese-English), handsomely produced. One can do little but offer praise in a short space, for there is much on offer and to reflect upon. The only sad point is that, like much Portuguese cinema, it might well be hard to find it distributed outside its own country. But do make the effort. Both for the book and the films.

Portugal: A Cinematographic Portrait is edited by Nuno Figueiredo & Dinis Guarda and published by Numero Magazine Portugal (30 Euros).

Paul Buck is one of Britain’s leading experimental writers and artists. He edited the path-breaking literary journal Curtains and is an accomplished translator of innovative and transgressive texts from the French. His most recent book is Spread Wide (Dis Voir), a multi-layered collaborative encounter with the late Kathy Acker.