Directors: Pedro Costa, Víctor Erice, Aki Kaurismäki, Manoel de Oliveira
Writer: Pedro Costa, Víctor Erice, Aki Kaurismäki, Manoel de Oliveira
Main Actors: Ilkka Koivula, Ventura, António Santos, Manuel ‘Tito’ Furtado, Valdemar Santos, Amândio Martins, Henriqueta Oliveira, Ricardo Trêpa.
80mins Portuguese with English subtitles Portugal
As befitting its title, the centre of this four-part portmanteau project consists of two densely woven examinations into recent history: Pedro Costa’s Sweet Exorcist and Víctor Erice’s Broken Windows. Surrounding these segments are Aki Kaurismäki’s drolly deadpan opener Tavern Man and Manoel de Oliveira’s playfully fluffy closer The Conquered Conqueror. Costa has said publicly that the film ‘doesn’t work’ and, voicing a seemingly common consensus, that portmanteau films ‘never work’. But in saying this, Costa is at least partially wrong: Centro Histórico may well be the exception that proves the rule, the juxtaposition of the lighter and heavier sections gracing the overall film with a coherent balance rarely found in works of this kind. If the Kaurismäki and de Oliveira sections would seem overly slight in isolation, they work all the better when placed against the richness of the other works.
Centro Histórico was commissioned as a celebration of Guimarães, the 2012 European Capital of Culture, and the directors were asked to make films about memory and history – themes amply explored by Costa and Erice. Indeed, Erice’s documentary segment engages directly with the recollected past, comprised as it is of a number of interviews with former workers of a now-defunct textile factory. As the interviews unfold, they weave a surprisingly poignant, philosophical and tender tapestry of the lives lived within the factory walls.
Meanwhile, in Centro Histórico‘s best section, Costa reteams with Ventura, who previously featured in his films Colossal Youth (2006), Tarrafal (2007) and The Rabbit Hunters (2007). A surreal examination into the legacy of the 1974 Portuguese revolution, Costa has said that everything in Sweet Exorcist grew out of a story told to him by Ventura – and thus memory and history are once more intertwined in the very fabric of the film’s creation. Caught in a hospital elevator, Ventura encounters the ghost of a soldier, leading to a pointed exploration of black experience during the revolution. The film is haunting and mysterious – a sweet exorcism indeed. The fact that the stunning opening images of people walking through foliage recall Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) reminds us that Costa is engaging not only with the history of Portugal, but also with the history of cinema – and, perhaps, even with his own history (Costa loosely remade I Walked with a Zombie as Casa de Lava in 1995).
It’s been said that the film’s funders were disappointed with the finished film, and it’s probably true that Centro Histórico fails as a celebration of Guimarães. But as a piece of cinema, it excels on almost every level. ALEX BARRETT