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It takes a rare kind of genius to make a relentlessly boring film about teenage pregnancy, attempted suicide, knife-point abduction and family collapse. But the Portuguese writer-director Teresa Villaverde goes the extra mile or three with Colo, an interminably dreary slab of uninspired, unengaging and obstinately undramatic social realism that premieres in competition in Berlin today.
Villaverde has a respectable track record of prize-winners in Cannes, Venice and elsewhere. But her latest self-produced feature is both stylistically dull and dramatically banal. Colo aspires to show us something about the numbing, alienating effects of neoliberal capitalism, but it actually reveals much more about the numbing, alienating effects of bad cinema. Even writing as a fan of bleak Eurodrama, it is hard to envision this low-voltage glumfest playing to audiences beyond the masochistic misery-porn junkies inside the film festival bubble. Theatrical prospects will be on the narrow side of niche.
Marta (Alice Albergaria Borges) is a skinny, sulky, solitary 17-year-old girl who shares a compact but neat apartment with her mother (Beatriz Batarda) and father (Joao Pedro Vaz) in the remote semi-rural suburbs of Lisbon. With money desperately tight, Dad unemployed and Mom wearily searching for extra night work, the atmosphere at home is understandably tense. Instead of pulling together for mutual support, each member of this small family unit slowly withdraws into private depressive brooding.
Between occasional bouts of self-harm, Marta begins skipping school and staying out all night on wild rambles with her classmate Julia (Clara Jost), who is secretly pregnant and terrified about how to deal with it. Meanwhile, her father resorts to extreme measures to restore his battered pride, but his plan backfires and he ends up on a humiliating late-night quest of his own. The final straw comes when the apartment’s electricity supply is cut due to unpaid bills, which has an irreversible effect on family unity.
With a hard-to-translate Portuguese title that suggests a nest or cradle, Colo is a minor-key chamber piece mostly confined to a single apartment, yet Villaverde somehow stretches it out to well over over two hours of soul-sapping non-drama. To this end, she includes lengthy shots of repetitive domestic tasks, such as cleaning fridges or gutting eels, which add nothing to the viewing experience besides additional running time. The script is full of sullen silences and blank non-sequiturs, but nothing that might be mistaken for psychological insight, political critique, emotional intensity or even redeeming humor.
Admittedly, for approximately six glorious seconds midway through the film, one of the characters puts a bucket on his head (no spoilers), but this joyous outbreak of surreal anarchy is instantly snuffed out and normal tedium levels restored. A bizarre plot twist in the final act, when Julia is mistaken for Marta, also seems to promise a late detour into farce. Alas, this tiny window of mischief leads nowhere.
If Colo has any saving graces, its two young female co-stars bring an authentically gawky adolescent awkwardness to their roles. Both were under 20 at the time of filming. Cinematographer Acacia de Almeida also locates tiny pockets of lyricism in unlikely locations, from a litter-strewn rooftop to a crumbling beach hut. But these are small consolations in a film that has very little to say, and spends too much time saying it. Social realism has a long and noble tradition in European cinema, but it should move us to tears, not bore us to death.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Alce Filmes, Sedna Films
Director, screenwriter, producer: Teresa Villaverde
Cinematographer: Acacio de Almeida
Editor: Rodolphe Molla
Sales company: Films Boutique, Berlin
Not rated, 136 minutes
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