Industrial Revolution (Revolucao industrial): Lisbon Review

IndieLisboa festival


Poetic, quietly ambitious documentary follows the flow of history and finds both illumination and grace.

Writer-directors Tiago Hespanha and Frederico Lobo's essay on a river valley premiered in a sidebar at the Portuguese festival.

The human and environmental costs of 'progress' are subtly tallied by Portguese duo Tiago Hespanha and Federico Lobo in Industrial Revolution (Revolucao industrial), one of 2014's stronger documentaries from the Iberian peninsula. Unveiled near-simultaneously at Lisbon's IndieLisboa and Switzerland's Visions du Reel, this microcosmic study of an obscure river-valley will attract festivals and channels seeking distinctive, intelligently essayistic fare with a socially conscious edge.

It can plausibly be presented as a Lusophone counterpart to Gianfranco Rosi's Golden Lion winner Sacro GRA, as it uses a geographical meander to chronicle life on the margins of European society. The focus here is on the valley of the Ave river in northern Portugal, especially the stretch around the town of Santo Tirso which has long been associated with the textile industry.

The Ave is introduced as "a wild river with strong and unexpected streams" , the strength of the currents making it ideal for the industralization which radically transformed the landscape more than a hundred years ago. "The river weaved life", intones the narrator, and "the peasants became laborers." In the present century industry remains an inescapable presence in this area, but on the evidence of Industrial Revolution there are as many factories in dilapidated ruins as they are in full working order.

As the film drifts downriver, the duo combine surveys of the landscape--in which the forces of nature persistently encroach upon the man-made--with anecdotal interviews featuring genial senior citizens recalling upon their days as factory-employees ("the work was hard and badly paid..."). The directors' sympathies evidently lie with the workers, and while overt editorializing is eschewed, images of the bosses' gated mansions speak eloquently--especially when taken in tandem with an employer's comment that his ideal factory would have the "production-costs of a third-world country."

The European textile business is, as we see, a highly automated affair with a minimal workforce, bumping along through an economic crisis which has his Portugal especially hard. Such passages are familiar enough from current non-fiction cinema all over the world; Hespanha and Lobo stand out by achieving such a beguiling looseness in their episodic narrative, the impression of just going with the river's steady flow and never being sure what's around the next bend.

Throughout the picture's brisk 70-odd minutes there are reflective interludes featuring a veteran boatman (Avelino Silva Dias), whose hawk-like visage scrutinizes both water and river-banks as he seeks to "understand this river" and who contributes a steady stream of murmured monologue. He seems to know every inch of a watercourse which he patiently explores until, in the delicately-handled final reel, he emerges into the open sea near the city of Vila do Conde.

In the picture's most memorable sequence, Silva Dias' small craft proceeds for an unbroken five-minute shot that involves a guitar-plucking singer sitting on the river-bank: this flintily minimalist romantic number exerts an unlikely, No-Wave charm. It's typical of a film which is for the most part stately, poised and measured, but which audaciously accommodates the random and the rough-edged. Music from the outfits Ghuna X and Phase strikes effectively eerie notes of percussive electronica, counterpointing a sound-mix from Pedro Augusto (and 'The Environment' studio) which hauntingly blends industrial noise, birdsong and the seemingly ever-present rushing water.

Venue: IndieLisboa, Lisbon, Portugal (Emerging Cinema), May 1 2014
Production company: Terratreme Filmes
Directors / Screenwriters / Directors of Photography: Tiago Hespanha, Federico Lobo
Producers: Joao Matos, Leonor Noivo, Joana Gusma
Editors: Federico Delpero Bejar, Tiago Hespanha, Federico Lobo
Music: Ghuna X, Phase
Sales: Terratreme Filmes, Lisbon
No MPAA rating, 72 minutes