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This film by the Portuguese director João Botelho ('A corte do norte')shown as part of the 2008 New York Film Festival is a handsome adaptation of a 1987 novel by Agustina Bessa Luis, a multi-generation exploration of a wealthy family with a mysterious past and a house on the island of Madeira. A young woman becomes obsessed with finding the true story of a distant ancestor, a noblewoman who scandalized society. She explores the stories of various women, all of whom played out their frustrated passions on the island in large estates set along magnificent, wind-swept coastal places. One hanged herself. Another threw herself off a cliff into the sea and disappeared. Each of them, spanning five generations, from 1860 to 1960, is played by the actress Ana Moreira, who has seven different roles in the film. The younger descendant becomes distraught when she thinks she has discovered her grandmother was a whore. Or was she a famous actress? This central figure, Emilia de Sousa, was inspired by actress Emily das Neves, the first female superstar's of the stage in Portugal. The film shifts back and forth through time and across generations as it tells its tale.
This is a magnificent looking film whose scenes are often presented as striking tableaux of multiple figures in ornate costumes. This is another example of very sharp, very handsome-looking digital imaging. The lighting is dramatic and often chiaroscuro, and the colors are rich and evocative of 19th-century painting. The music is chamber and classical. 'The Northern Land' is elegantly crafted cinema in an old-world European tradition. The difficulties presented to a viewer unfamiliar with the language and the novel source are many, however. The subtitles are complete and literal, which means they are long and many, and they are small and ornate in font and thus doubly difficult to read. The story is hard to follow, and hence hard to relate to. The virtuoso performance of Ana Madeira is one of the beauties of the film, but does not make it any easier to decode. On first viewing, these painterly mysteries remain pretty much darkly mysterious. My evaluation of 8/10 is merely a generous guess based on convincing externals.
Other important cast members include Aibeo Ricardo, Rogerio Samora, Marcella Urgeghe, Antonio Pedro Cerdeira, Gustodia Galego, Diana Costa e Silva, Fernanda Borsatti, Filipe Vargas, and Graciano Dias.
This is a new film that will be released in Portugal in 10 theaters as part of a tribute to the author which will include a reissue of the novel and a book of photographs giving the screenplay and a discussion of Botelho's work of adaptation. Botelho was previously represented at Lincoln Center in the New Directors/New Films series with his film 'A Portuguese Farewell'/'Um Adeus Português' in 1985, and at the New York Film Festival with 'Hard Times'/'Tempos Difíceis' in 1988. This appears to be the premiere of 'The Northern Land' (at the Ziegfield Theater, the NYFF's main venue for 2008m at 9:15 p.m. September 30).
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