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The recognition and acclaim that Portuguese officialdom once denied its great emigre novelist, Jose de Sousa Saramago (1922-2010), finds a sort of belated poetic justice in his nation’s entry of the high-profile documentary Jose and Pilar in this year’s Academy Awards race for best foreign-language film. Long and repetitive but intermittently engrossing, the film describes the hyper-active twilight years of the Nobel laureate, his day-to-day life and relationship to his beloved, strong-willed wife, Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio.
With this more-than-literary biography, director Miguel Goncalves Mendes conveys a sense of the writer’s personal life and his independent thinking — never banal and rarely disconnected from the world around him. Death is often on Saramago’s mind, and the film runs him through a dangerous illness whose outcome is uncertain. In an odd opening for a documentary, the writer stands in an eerie landscape, looks directly into the camera and says, “Pilar — see you on the other side.” These are ambiguous words coming from a staunch Communist and atheist, and not all that comforting to hear in any case.
Solitary, melancholy but committed to reaching out to people, Saramago never is caught napping and rarely caught writing; His life seems evenly divided between planning public appearances with Pilar in their windswept, white-washed house in the Canary Islands and jetting around from one event to another. How he managed to write The Elephant’s Journey in the midst of nonstop traveling is hard to fathom. The indefatigable Pilar pushes him hard, but after the scare of his 2007 hospitalization, they both try to slow down a bit.
The film is both unsentimental and cheering in describing the continuing romance between intellectuals who found each other late in life. The famous couple can boast the unique romantic privilege of having a street in their area dedicated to Pilar that will intersect the one bearing Saramago’s name. But their obvious affection for each other doesn’t preclude a long argument over the political merits of Hillary Clinton — Pilar pro, Jose con.
Co-produced by Pedro Almodovar’s Spanish production house El Deseo, the project is packed with animation and special effects unusual in a documentary. Making guest appearances are director Fernando Meirelles and actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who reads excerpts of Saramago’s novel Death With Interruptions with its author.
Cast: Jose de Sousa Saramago, Pilar del Rio
Director: Miguel Goncalves Mendes
No rating, 117 minutes
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