The Portuguese Nun follows Julie, a Parisienne actress who is taking part in a location shoot in Lisbon. It's feels like an investigation of roots for her as her parents are a Portuguese and a French Basque and she was brought up to be bilingual. The film within the film is being shot with a small crew and only one other actor. Director Eugène Green plays the director in the film. The main theme of the movie, for me, appears to be finding happiness and making peace, and there's a lot of philosophy about love. Due to the extreme slow pace of the movie and the deliberately stilted acting, plus some challenging material there is every chance that you could view this movie as the apogee of pretension. My advice is to stay with it and give it every chance.
Knowledge of the Portuguese legend of O Desejado, sixteenth century King Sebastião I is of help. It has been believed that one day he will return to rescue Portugal in a time of crisis. For Eugène Green the crisis is a spiritual one, he has spoken of a world that seems like a "conglomeration of fragments with no connection between them".
There are also several points during the film when Green films Fado singers doing whole numbers, Green has said, "This musical and poetical form represents what is most essential in Portuguese culture: the meeting, in the present, of memory and desire, of past and future".
I think another difficulty in terms of the unexpected, is that the movie is in large part concerning the female experience, especially of love, which isn't something you usually see in film, albeit you get a lot of male fantasies about women's experience of love. I think Julie for example has a problem that many women have of only having relationships with a particular type of man, a type that's often not positive for them. Men on the other hand seem to have a lot more versatility in terms of affection. There's also this idea of love in the film, from Plato's Symposium (Diotima's dialogue) that it's a stepping stone towards a contemplation of God and his love, that these types of love are the same and differ only in terms of quality. Thus the Portuguese Nun in the film within a film is inspired by her love for a man that she knows can never be fulfilled.
The dialogues in the film are very stylised, and try to remove manipulative body language and also rhetoric. They're also quite slow so that you can really absorb what's said. I think the it's a mark of the director's respect for the characters, and it the movie thus comes across as incredibly humane. The technique is Brechtian, and makes sure you don't identify emotionally with the characters. The Portuguese Nun is a very successful film on that level, in the way in which it promotes self reflection.
Some of the film's message I find very difficult to absorb, I think for example that learning to love what isn't yourself and to love all people, is a very noble thing, but it isn't the panacea the film would have you believe. In this life one generally has to learn to be tough. Thespians on the other hand can probably afford such a lifestyle. I would say this is a lacuna for Eugène Green.
I quite liked a point about egotism that the film made, that actually offering to do someone a favour often comes down to egotism as much as the most overt act of selfishness, and I enjoyed pondering what life without egotism would actually be like.
I was also driven to think about polygamy and the selfishness of sexual jealousy. So I think the movie is really a chocolate box for the soul and doesn't necessarily have one particular focus. Particularly also liked the comments about how reason was a bad thing and the enemy of God.
At one point I was a little bit worried of a rehash of Viridiana, when a quite unrealistic aristocratic character is introduced who has not had the courage to do anything with his talents, very reminiscent of Buñuel's Don Jaime. Also we have a rather unorthodox look at nuns. If anyone is interested in filmic cross-hybridisations of Portuguese and French culture, you could do far worse than seek out West Point (2007 - Laurence Rebouillon).
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