Arts Festival

Death, be not precious

INCARNATIONS and philosophy: Ricardo Reis (Chico Diaz) and Fernando Pessoa (Luis Lima Barreto) in a still from The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a film based on the novel by Jose Saramago. Photograph courtesy EUFF.

WHAT IF YOU knew that there was a special injunction among the dead that, like the living, they have nine months of a gestation period before they leave us forever? This is one of the premises of a curious Portuguese film entitled The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which, takes on the 1930s film idiom to tell a Don Juan tale of love and conquest, innocence and life. It is available online and without cost, as part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, which runs from 14 until 24 October 2021. Bookings are open.

Featuring Chico Díaz in the main role, this work is very carefully developed on several levels. While on the one hand it doffs a hat at early film traditions, it also clearly is honouring the work of well-respected modernist Portuguese writer Jose Saramago. And there are many elements of artifice and preciousness that interface in this story about a medical doctor who returns to Portugal after a 16-year stint in Brazil. He finds there, a friend of his – the poet Fernando Pessoa (Luís Lima Barreto) who has recently died. Or rather, Pessoa finds him and the mystical nature of his between-the-universe status enables him to materialise at any given point, in a way that Reis can see him and talk to him.

Toss in an ‘easy’ chambermaid called Lidia (Catarina Wallenstein) and a complicated young woman with a paralysed hand (like a dead bird in her pocket), called Marcendo (Victoria Guerra) and you have a strange little intrigue peppered by a bit of romance and a lot of dreams. The problem with the work, however, is its interregna – each ‘paragraph’ of the narrative is split by a filmic device which is distracting, at best – resulting in a crippling stiltedness of the sequence of events.

On a level, watching this film feels as though you are being forced into a reading a novel of great import in a language you do not understand; it seems to be constructed for specialist readers of Saramago, rather than an audience untutored in his material. There are scant inroads into this story, but many posed moments and the 1930s film idiom in a 2020 context is not pushed to the hilt, offering a symbolic switch between black and white and full colour, which feels superficial at best. It also evokes the classic surreal film of 1929, Le Chien Andalou, made by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel but without its quirky mystery, and with lots of cringeworthy sex scenes instead.

Aesthetically, the work is pretty. There are filmic moments of rain and street life, of men in suits and hats and women who ponder on spiral staircases, but the work lacks a sense of edge or crease which you might need to hold onto.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is directed by João Botelho and is performed by a cast headed by Ricardo Aibéo, Hugo Mestre Amaro, João Barbosa, Luís Lima Barreto, Dinarte Branco, Márcia Breia, Luísa Cruz, Cláudio da Silva, Chico Díaz, Dinis Gomes, Bruno Ferreira, Paulo Filipe, Rafael Fonseca, André Gomes Victoria Guerra, Pedro Lacerda, Luís Lucas, José Martins, Rui Morisson, Alexandra Rosa, Solange Santos, Carolina Serrão, Hugo Silva, Francisco Tavares, Gustavo Vargas,  and Catarina Wallenstein. Written by João Botelho, based on the eponymous novel by José Saramago, it is produced by Alexandre Oliveira and features creative input by Daniel Bernardes (music), João Ribeiro (cinematography), João Braz (editing), and Silvia Grabowski (costumes). In Portuguese with English subtitles, it is part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 14-24 October 2021. Bookings are now open.

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