The Portuguese Nun

The Portuguese Nun


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"I never see French films, they're too intellectual."

So complains the concierge at the Lisbon hotel where Parisian actress Julie (Leonor Baldaque, in fact, a Portuguese actress) is staying while shooting scenes for The Portuguese Nun, a quirky period film directed by Denis Verde (himself a cypher for, and played by, director Eugène Green) and inspired by Guilleragues' 17th-century epistolary novel Letters Of A Portuguese Nun. Verde's production does, indeed seem intellectual, with its formal austerity, its cast of just two (who share only two scenes together), and its lines all pre-recorded. "The film is – unconventional," Julie admits, choosing her words carefully. "Boring, you mean," replies the make-up girl, but Julie insists that this is not her hope: "The story moves me."

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Green's film, like Verde's, will no doubt seem boring to some, overly intellectual to others, while still others will find it deeply affecting. It certainly has its own fair share of provocative longueurs and stylistic tics. Green indulges in lengthy, meandering tracks and pans and keeps scenes rolling beyond the point where his players have left the frame. Two full fado performances are allowed to run uninterrupted to their natural end (in one case even after the principal character has departed the scene). Acts are punctuated by mannered chapter headings. Characters break the fourth wall with direct-to-camera stares, engage in surreally mannered dialogue and move staidly like somnambulists through all the artfully composed locations.

Yet all these alienation effects, fictive tricks and metacinematic games, right down to the reflexivity of the film-within-a-film, in the end serve less to distance The Portuguese Nun than to ally it to a sort of metaphysical quest – or, as Julie herself puts it: "I'm an actress, I try to show the truth through unreal things."

For in her various encounters with her director, her co-star (Adrien Michaux), a lonely aristocrat (Diogo Dória), an orphaned boy (Francisco Mozos) and his desperate foster mother (Beatriz Batarda), a local suitor and a real nun (Ana Moreira), Julie is not only trying to find a way into her role, but also learning lessons about life, love, happiness and selflessness that will change both her and the film in which she is appearing, so that by the end there truly seems little difference between a passionate, promiscuous French atheist and a devout, celibate Portuguese nun - or between a king of old and a stranger in the street.

Green's film may be a love letter to Lisbon, capturing the city's sights, moods, music, literature and even cinema (with several of Manoel de Oliveira's regulars appearing in its cast), but ultimately all these particularities are laid aside by the suggestion that the events and experiences portrayed could happen anywhere, and to anyone, in a transient world of illusions – not unlike that presented by cinema. It is a message that is intellectual, to be sure, but also bracingly transcendent.

Reviewed on: 01 Oct 2009
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An actress rediscovers herself on a film shoot in Portugal.
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Director: Eugène Green

Writer: Eugène Green

Starring: Leonor Baldaque, Adrien Michaux, Beatriz Batarda, Diogo Dória, Eugène Green, Francisco Mozos, Ana Moreira

Year: 2009

Runtime: 127 minutes

Country: Portugal, France


London 2009

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