The Invisible Life (A Vida Invisivel): Rome Review

Invisible and lifeless.

Portuguese filmmaker Victor Goncalves (“A Girl in Summer”) premiered his latest feature in competition in Rome.

A belabored and obscure exercise in experimental storytelling, Portuguese filmmaker Victor GoncalvesThe Invisible Life (A Vida Invisivel) is, at least per the program notes, about a young civil servant dealing with the death of his boss, which motivates him to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend and ponder his own existence. But by barely providing any context to the viewer, and relating events in sluggish, woodenly acted scenes filled with random – i.e. boring – activity, it’s nearly impossible to connect with a movie that prompted several walkouts during its Rome press screening.

The fact that the film was included in the festival’s official competition, rather than its more suitable CinemaXXI avant-garde program, is another ponderous choice, and it’s hard to see how it will travel outside the more fringe sections of mid-level fests. Writer-director Goncalves does, however, have some clout among specialized critics, and his 1986 debut feature, A Girl in Summer, put him on the map as an emerging talent and protégé of Portuguese auteur Antonio Reis (Tras-os-montes)

If one is familiar with the director's bio, then The Invisible Life is ostensibly about the Goncalves' own experience when his mentor passed away in 1991. In the movie, that older character is also named Antonio (Joao Perry), and as both Goncalves and Reis taught at the Lisbon Theatre and Film School, there seems to be some underlying message about legacy and the passing of the guard.

But such meaning is lost in a film that makes little effort to be either lucid or likeable, focusing mostly on an office employee, Hugo (Filipe Duarte), who spends a lot of time brooding, staring into space, washing his dishes, microwaving a TV dinner, and, in one late scene – SPOILER ALERT – removing rocks from an empty fish tank. If there’s symbolism in these moments, then it’s entirely between the director and his crew (including two additional screenwriters, for Lord knows what purpose).

As Antonio heads towards his deathbed, Hugo is contacted by ex-gf, Adriana (Maria Joao Pinho, Mysteries of Lisbon), and they try to rekindle a relationship, adding the hope that the movie will evolve into something more accessible. But that never happens, and the director’s attempts to create some mild drama in the third act fall flat.

It’s not that experimentation is unwanted, but Goncalves seems to be trying to tell a story here, and he’s just not very good at it. If, on the other hand, The Invisible Life is really about our inability to comprehend something as vast and nebulous as death, then he’s certainly succeeded in conveying the meaninglessness of it all.

Mixing sharp HD cinematography by Leonardo Simoes (who shot Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth) with Super 8mm footage by British artist Julie Brook, the film does provide some aesthetically potent moments amid the otherwise stilted action.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Rosa Films, Young Films
Cast: Filipe Duarte, Joao Perry, Maria Joao Pinho
Director: Victor Goncalves
Screenwriters: Vitor Goncalves, Monica Santana Baptista, Jorge Braz Santoas
Producers: Pedro Fernandes Duarte, Rui Alexandre Santos, Maria Joao Sigalho, Christopher Young
Director of photography: Leonardo Simoes
Production designer: Patricia Maravilha
Music: Sinan C. Savaskan
Editors: Rodrigo Pereira, Rui Alexandre Santos
No rating, 99 minutes