Ate ver a luz: Cannes Review

ATE VER A LUZ Film Still - H 2013

ATE VER A LUZ Film Still - H 2013

Straight outta Lisbon.

Swiss-born Portuguese director Basil da Cunha's debut feature is set in the gritty Lisbon ghetto of Reboleira.

CANNES -- Combining hard-hitting street realism with a generic gangster story reminiscent of everything from Boyz n the Hood to various episodes of The Sopranos, Ate ver a luz marks an intriguing, though rather underwhelming, debut feature from the 28-year-old Swiss-born Portuguese filmmaker Basil da Cunha. Set within the Creole-speaking Cap Verdean community of Reboleira – a sprawling dilapidated ghetto just outside of Lisbon – the movie wins points for its gritty, documentary-style portrait of people scraping by on the fringes of Western European society, but otherwise fails to create convincing characters and a workable plot.

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Indeed, there are times when Ate ver a luz – which translates roughly to “Until You See the Light” – plays like a mash-up of a Pedro Costa movie and a Starz Original Series, cutting between seemingly improvised scenes performed by a cast of non-professional locals, and a B-level narrative involving drug debts, double-crossings and machete-swinging vengeance. As such, it should continue to tour the fest circuit after premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight, but will be a harder sell for theatrical outlets beyond niche Euro art houses, followed by boutique VOD and DVD play.

Starting in media res with a bunch of gangstas, lead by the no-nonsense Olos (Joao Veiga), arguing about a stolen stash, the story eventually focuses on a low-level, downtrodden dealer with the apt name of Sombra (Perdro Ferreira), who owes Olos a small chunk of change and risks a heavy beating if he doesn’t pay up quickly. The rest of the movie follows Sombra’s travails as he wanders the crumbling concrete maze of Reboleira, trying to collect his cash while crossing paths with an army of hoods, junkies and street musicians, not to mention a snappy aunt (Susana Maria Mendes da Costa) and a fire-breathing witch doctor (Jose Zeferino da Cruz).

Eventually, some very conventional plot mechanics kick in when Olos’ muscle-bound, one-armed sidekick, Nuvem (Nelson da Cruz Duarte Rodriguez), brings Sombra onboard for a stick-up job that turns deadly, leading to a long denouement that recycles mafia movie tropes without adding anything really original to them. Meanwhile, we learn next to nothing about what makes Sombra tick—if it’s not his romantic attachment to a pet iguana—and the film spends way too much time cutting between its hero’s aimless wanderings, and scenes of the Olos clan jabbering away like Tony Soprano and cohorts in front of Satriale’s Pork Store.

As a pure expose on Reboleira’s struggling immigrant population, Ate ver a luz has some noteworthy moments, and da Cunha is strongest when he and cinematographer Patrick Tresch focus their camera on everyday people instead of on wisecracking petty criminals, whether they’re actually playing themselves or not. Because as much as all the improvised performances feel real, the film ultimately gets too caught up in genre cliches to provide a full picture of the place it so earnestly portrays.

Production companies: Box Productions

Director, screenwriter: Basil Da Cunha

Producer: Elena Tatti

Director of photography: Patrick Tresch

Production designer: Carlos Baessa De Brito

Editors: Renata Sancho, Basil da Cunha, Emilie Morier

Sales Agent: Urban Distribution International

No rating, 95 minutes