Lord von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe) is planning war in Northern Italy, and so others do not interfere with his warmongering plans, he takes a wife (Clara Riedenstein) from the foreign land of Portugal in order to support his campaign. Set somewhere between the 15th and 18th centuries, they are in a never-ending battle with the Bishop of Trent. Stuck in a ruined castle, and lavishly attended to by Moorish slaves, his wife endlessly awaits the end of the war. Meanwhile, her contemporaries spread vicious rumours about her. Will she break free of her feminine constraints, or is she condemned to a life of stasis?
A study in lethargy characterised by static frames and lengthy, infinitesimally moving action, the style of The Portuguese Woman (A Portuguesa) proves its own point rather too well. As scenes move at a snail’s pace, and plot development occurs outside of these meticulously detailed frames, it can be a difficult film to follow. To add to the confusion, supporting characters who are not Portuguese still speak the language, diluting the strange effect this beautiful, red-haired woman is supposed to have upon the locals. Neither surreal enough to make it worthwhile nor sober enough to make it profound, A Portuguese Woman is positively soporiferous.
Adapted from the lengthy short story by Robert Musil, the film copies Musil’s tendency to use literature as a means of conversation rather than a form of narrative. Unlike Musil’s best work, however, the film can’t find a way to explicitly dramatise these conflicts through action itself. Various Portuguese-language films in recent years have explored a similar idea of exile as a form of purgatory: Lucretia Mattel’s Zama depicted a colonial officer trapped in a remote outpost in South America, while An Outpost of Progress (based on the short story by Joseph Conrad) saw two men slowly go insane while working in the Congo. But where those two films found the surreal humour in such an absurd situation, The Portuguese Woman ponderously aims for deep and cutting insight, only rewarding the most attentive of viewers.
As an example of the film’s obtuse nature, we never actually see the war — only how it affects those still lingering around the castle. It is more an abstract construct than a physical reality, a springboard for dialogue about why men love to fight. An older woman (Ingrid Caven) occasionally comes in dressed in modern fashion to break the fourth wall, singing samba-infused medieval German lyric songs. She functions as a kind of Greek chorus, telling the viewer how they should feel about the Portuguese woman’s plight. While at first welcome break from the stuffy narrative, she gets annoying very quickly.
Visually, there is a lot to commend. Utilising medium shots with strong, blocky colours, and diffused, ever-so-slightly shifting light, there is a painterly aspect to each frame, reminiscent of the classic Dutch masters. Rita Azevedo Gomes is fond of 90-degree angles, framing shots against the corners of rooms, suggesting domesticity to be a kind of prison. Nevertheless, like spending too long in a museum, the 136-minute runtime eventually proves too tiresome. Only for the most ardent devotees of Robert Musil and Portuguese cinema.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.