José and Pilar: Film Review

Outsider Pictures
The intimacy between José Saramago and his wife Pilar del Rio opens the door to the Nobel laureate’s later years in a doc for cultured audiences.

The high-profile documentary, Portugal's entry for this year's best foreign-language Oscar, chronicles the life of the Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist José Saramago and his wife.

The recognition and acclaim that Portuguese officialdom once denied its great émigré novelist, José de Sousa Saramago (1922-2010), finds a sort of belated poetic justice in Portugal’s candidacy of the high-profile documentary Jose and Pilar in this year’s Academy Awards race in the Best Foreign Language category. Long, 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. The doc is already out on DVD in Europe and will be of considerable interest for modern lit fans everywhere.

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 his mind, and the film runs him through a dangerous illness whose outcome is uncertain. In an eerie opener, the writer stands in a Faustian after-death landscape, looking directly into the camera and saying, “Pilar—see you on the other side.” These are ambiguous words coming from a convinced Communist and atheist, and not all that comforting to hear in any case.

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Solitary, melancholy but committed to reaching out to people, he is never 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 the world from one event to another.  How he managed to write The Elephant’s Journey in the midst of non-stop 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.

As a modern love story, the film is both unsentimental and cheering in describing the continuing romance between two intellectuals who found each other late in life.Their obvious affection for each other doesn’t preclude a long argument over the political merits of Hilary Clinton (Pilar pro, Jose con.) Ordinary mortals can relate to their remarriage in a church surrounded by Del Rio’s numerous family, but the famous couple can also boast the unique romantic privilege of having a street in their area dedicated to Pilar del Rio which will intersect the one bearing Saramago’s name.

Though the film crew seems to have enjoyed remarkable access to the writer’s household, the resulting wealth of material could have used more shaping. Some trimming of the couple’s constant traveling could have usefully reduced the over 2 hour running time and freed up space to discuss the writer’s run-ins with the Catholic Church and Portuguese prime minister (later president) Anibal Cavaco Silva, who ordered the removal of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from the shortlist of the European Literary Prize on the grounds of it being religiously offensive. This prelude to Saramago’s move to Spain is only glancingly mentioned.

Coproduced by Pedro Almodovar’s Spanish production house El Deseo and Brazil’s 02 Filmes, the film is packed with animation and special effects unusual in a documentary, which makes it all the more puzzling why the omnipresent white over-titles are so difficult to read. Making guest appearances are director Fernando Meirelles, who briefly appears at the writer’s side during the Cannes premiere of Blindness, and Gael Garcia Bernal performing in Death with Interruptions with its author.

Venue: reviewed on DVD
Production companies: El Deseo, 02 Filmes in association with JumpCut
Cast: José Saramago, Pilar del Río, Gael García Bernal
Director: Miguel Gonçalves Mendes
Producers: Agustín Almodóvar, Fernando Meirelles, Miguel Gonçalves Mendes
Executive producers: Ana Jordão, Daniela Siragusa,
Director of photography: Daniel Neves
Editor: Claudia Rita Oliveira
Music: Alberto Iglesias, Camane, Adriana Calcanhotto, Bruno Palazzo, Luis Cilia, Noiserv, Pedro Goncalves, Pedro Granato
Sales Agent: Outsider Pictures
No rating, 128 minutes.