'The Domain' ('A herdade'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
An intimate epic from Portugal.

Portuguese actor Albano Jeronimo headlines this epic family saga from director Tiago Guedes that's playing in both the Venice and Toronto festivals.

Though set in the second half of the 20th century, Tiago Guedes’ intimate epic The Domain (A Herdade) so starkly depicts its moneyed but emotionally often coarse characters that the nearly three-hour film feels like the cinematic equivalent of a novel by realist writer Eca de Queiros, Portugal’s Tolstoy or Balzac.

The story consists of a brief post-war prologue and roughly two halves, set almost 20 years apart. The first part constantly entwines the political and the personal and is set during the lead-up to the 1974 Carnation Revolution, while the second half focuses on more personal issues as moral rot and economic decline run parallel in the early 1990s. A plush Venice competition slot should make this the most visible work to date from Guedes, who earlier co-directed such films as Blood Curse and Noise. It will screen in Toronto as a Special Presentation.

An early scene sees a minister of the far-right Estado Novo government in 1973 — so after the death of Salazar but before the Revolution — being briefed on the Fernandes family and their property. They own almost 35,000 acres of land on the southern banks of the Tagus River, the minister is told by his chief of staff, much of it used for crops such as wheat and rice. This would make it one of the biggest properties in Europe (the screenplay was inspired by the sprawling Barroca d’Alva estate). 

The owner of this vast land mass is Joao Fernandes (Albano Jeronimo), a solitary man with a frequently clenched square jaw. He is married to the chain-smoking and always beautifully coiffed Leonor (Sandra Faleiro), who is not only the mother of their children but whose father is one of the Generals of the regime. Not that that necessarily makes things easier for the family, as the feature’s first half chronicles the government’s increasingly desperate attempts to get Fernandes to publicly declare his support for the war in Angola, which they are “sure to win,” as the Minister explains. (It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that that conflict is now referred to as the Angolan War of Independence.) 

What is fascinating is that Guedes, credited with the screenplay alongside novelist-journalist-screenwriter Rui Cardoso Martins and French scripter Gilles Taurand (Wild Reeds, Farewell My Queen), never makes Joao either a one-note villain or a rich idiot. Instead, he’s a man of flesh and blood who is perhaps not always friendly but who tries to be fair and pragmatic, who likes to fly low — he prefers to stay out in the countryside rather than hang out with Portugal’s elite in Lisbon — and who is surprisingly tolerant of change, even if it is clear he might not quite anticipate what the Carnation Revolution might bring about. Still, he thinks nothing of defending a communist repairman (Joao Vicente), who works for him even if their political ideologies are at obvious odds; the man respects Joao by working hard and Joao believes that deserves his respect in return. 

Audiences not quite up on their Portuguese history won’t have any major issues following the main thrust of the action, as the focus is always on how the political impacts the personal, so the history of the Fernandes family takes precedence over the history of Portugal. What’s more, the film’s second half concentrates so much on the unraveling of family secrets that its precise date, in September 1991, feels so detached from the country’s history that it almost feels arbitrary. The passage from the first to the second half takes place during the Carnation Revolution and beautifully suggests the dying of the old order and the start of a sober new reality as it interlinks major political change and a major family trauma without ever going overboard. Indeed, Guedes finds precisely the right tone for the material, which is slightly starker than pure realism. It lifts the clan and its troubles from their everyday plane into the realm of something more timeless and almost mythical, much like de Queiros did in his celebrated family saga, Os Maias.

The two halves aren’t quite equal — and there’s a general dip in energy in the midsection — as the political context recedes and The Domain loses much of its epic-feeling backdrop that always seemed to extend way beyond the screen. This makes the 1991 section — which focuses on Joao’s grown-up children, Teresa (Beatriz Bras) and Miguel (Joao Pedro Malmede), and the son (Rodrigo Tomas) of one of the family’s maids (Ana Vilela da Costa) — necessarily feel more intimate. 

It is a structural gamble that some might see as a flaw, even as it's true that the world of the family also literally became smaller. In fact, in the early 1990s, several banks require the Fernandes to sell some of their lands to pay off at least a part of their debts. Guedes also underlines the shrinking of their world by making a prolonged, dimly lit dinner-table scene the centerpiece of the second half, also visually suggesting that the twilight years might be upon the Fernandes family. Practically everyone finally gets to have their say and each character is confronted with the sobering notion that nothing ever stays the same. It is, in a sense, an individual and psychological revolution for each of them, as cataclysmic as the Carnation Revolution was for the country.

Shockingly, this is the first feature that Jeronimo, a busy theater actor, has had to carry on his broad shoulders as the lead but he does so effortlessly, imbuing Joao with the natural authority but also the necessary detachment of a born leader. Faleiro, opposite him, beautifully limns a woman whose position between her parents on the one hand and her husband and children on the other becomes untenable because of political events beyond her control. Her brief but forceful dinner-scene explosion is one of the drama’s highlights. In the 1990s, it is Malmede who really shines as the male heir who has everything except the one thing he craves: the love of his father, who was himself scarred to life and irreparably hardened by what he witnessed in the postwar prologue at the start. So while things will never stay the same during one life, Guedes finally suggests, there is a cyclical nature to history across generations. It’s a consideration worthy of an epic such as this one. 

Production companies: Leopardo Filmes, Alfama Films Production, CB Partners, Ana Pinhao Moura Producoes 
Cast: Albano Jeronimo, Sandra Faleiro, Miguel Borges, Joao Vicente, Joao Pedro Mamede, Ana Vilela da Costa, Rodrigo Tomas, Beatriz Bras, Teresa Madruga
Director: Tiago Guedes
Screenwriters: Rui Cardoso Martins, Tiago Guedes, Gilles Taurand 
Producer: Paulo Branco
Cinematography: Joao Lanca Morais
Production design: Isabel Branco
Costume design: Isabel Branco, Ines Mata
Editing: Roberto Perpignani
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)

Sales: Alfama Films

In Portuguese
164 minutes