'The Portuguese Woman' ('A portuguesa'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Lavish but lethargic.

A newly married young woman waits years for the return of her warrior husband in this lightly experimental period drama from Portuguese director Rita Azevedo Gomes.

For her latest lavish literary adaptation, Portuguese writer-director Rita Azevedo Gomes revisits a 1924 novella by Robert Musil, the Austrian modernist author most famous for The Man Without Qualities. With its painterly visuals and highbrow pedigree, The Portuguese Woman disguises its lightly surreal and experimental elements beneath sumptuous period-drama trappings. Perhaps too successfully, as it often plods even during its most potentially gripping moments.

Opening theatrically in Portugal this weekend following its European premiere in Berlin earlier this month, The Portuguese Woman is a classy piece of work, but too traditionally art house to appeal beyond film festivals and specialist connoisseur circles. Despite its high-caliber polish and some inspired casting choices, including Fassbinder veteran and cult screen icon Ingrid Caven, this sluggish historical pageant never quite coalesces into a persuasive, engrossing narrative.

The period setting is war-torn western Europe sometime in the 17th or 18th century, although Gomes purposely blurs the chronology with anachronistic musical and literary asides. Copper-haired, freckle-flecked pre-Raphaelite beauty Clara Riedenstein gives an elegantly poised lead performance as the unnamed Portuguese woman of the title, recently married to warrior nobleman Von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe) and heavily pregnant

We first encounter the couple during their yearlong honeymoon journey across Europe, complete with a full retinue of servants and slaves. But midway through their travels, Von Ketten is called away to pursue a bloody land dispute with the bishop of Trento in northern Italy, which has dragged on for decades: “war is our homeland," he insists solemnly. Instead of heading home to Portugal, his new bride stubbornly insists on settling in a crumbling mansion perched high on a rocky peak to await his return from battle, possibly years in the future, or maybe even never.

At its dramatic core, The Portuguese Woman is an intimate domestic portrait of its stoic heroine as she waits patiently in her remote mountain home, raises her newborn son, adopts a pet wolf and yearns for a return to the sunny ocean vistas of her native Portugal. A supporting cast of servants, visitors and locals provide a background buzz of low-level drama but the main protagonist herself remains in stasis, her future seemingly suspended in permanent limbo.

Meanwhile, old friends call by and counsel the homesick heroine to leave: “You are too young for this tomb,” one insists. Her handsome cousin Pero Lobato (Joao Vicente) also breaks off his studies in Bologna to visit, and a flirtatious relationship develops between them — perhaps with a sexual element, which Gomes leaves purposely opaque. When Von Ketten finally returns from battle, a wounded semi-stranger to his own wife, he is forced to take desperate measures to warn off potential love rivals.

The Portuguese Woman is languidly paced, stilted in execution and emotionally aloof. This emphatically mannered approach is clearly what Gomes intended, and largely faithful to the tone of Musil's cryptic novella, but it makes the viewing experience something of a chilly endurance test over its interminable two-hours-plus duration. The film's richest rewards are aesthetic: Gomes and her cinematographer Acacio de Almeida shoot almost every scene like a static tableaux vivants, as posed and composed as Vermeer paintings, with painstaking attention to interior decor and color. There are also lightly surreal flourishes here that recall the arch formalism of early Peter Greenaway and the wry absurdism of Roy Andersson.

Popping up between scenes to comment on the action with multilingual songs and poems, Caven's choral role is a pleasingly Brechtian touch. But none of these minor stylistic twists can salvage The Portuguese Woman from its overall mood of starchy, stagey torpor. If only Gomes had tightened up the pace and pushed these modernist elements into the foreground, she might have ended up making an inspired literary reboot with contemporary feminist resonance instead of this lovingly crafted, well-dressed yawn-fest.

Venue: Berlin film festival (Forum)
Production companies: Basilisco Filmes, Duplacena
Cast: Clara Riedenstein, Marcello Urgeghe, Ingrid Caven, Rita Durao, Pierre Leon, Joao Vicente, Luna Picolli-Truffaut, Manuela de Freitas
Director screenwriter, editor: Rita Azevedo Gomes
Dialogue: Agustina Bessa-Luís
Cinematographer: Acacio de Almeida
Music: Jose Mario Branco
Producers: Rita Azevedo Gomes, Antonio Camara Manuel
Production designers: Roberta Azevedo Gomes, Elsa Bruxelas
Costumes: Rute Correia, Tania Franco
Sales company: Basilisco Filmes, Cascais, Portugal
136 minutes