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A Conversation About João César Monteiro

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A Conversation About João César Monteiro

João César Monteiro’s world is a strange one. Over 21 films made from 1969 to his death in 2003, the Portuguese auteur built worlds out of flat screens, a still camera, and soundtracks consisting of people talking softly—all of which would sound terribly boring, save for the men running around in pig masks and the gods with the giant dildos. It’s an extremely dark, extremely funny world without a center. The closest we get to having one is when Monteiro casts himself in his films as the tormented João de Deus (he says in 1989’s Recollections of the Yellow House, “I never eat at regular hours and sometimes I forget to eat altogether”), a bearded, bespectacled praying mantis of a man who walks the world open-mouthed.

His best-known film, Recollections of the Yellow House, is a lyrical view of a boarding house that at times feels more like an asylum. At other times, as in Snow White, Monteiro erases the background altogether; the screen goes entirely black and all that we get are characters’ voices on the soundtrack (in this case Princess, Hunter, Queen). Because he continually strives to give us beauty, though, Monteiro’s films prove more hopeful than despairing. Their world is destructive, but what matters most is that, as Beckett wrote, “The discourse must go on.”

For the next month, BAM is hosting a Monteiro retrospective. (The series starts today with 1982’s Silvestre.) Monteiro’s films are rare in the States, and this is his first-ever U.S. show. I spoke with series curator Haden Guest (Harvard Film Archives), and asked BAM’s curator Florence Almozini a question or two, to learn more.

How would you describe a Monteiro film for someone who’s never seen one?

Haden Guest: Monteiro’s films balance an intense formal rigor—a stylistic control (of light and location, for example) that often becomes bracingly austere—with a playful and provocative dance of meaning, a poetry of word and image that is beautifully engaging, quite captivating if you willingly surrender to the unique rhythm and often extreme length of his films. Monteiro’s films are remarkably and deliberately eccentric, stylistically and thematically unlike anything most viewers have seen before. Films like Silvestre and The Hips of J.W., from 1997, define a mode of ultra high-art cinema that, at times, especially in the early films, recall the literary complexities and preoccupations with history and myth explored by his compatriot Manoel de Oliveira.

Florence Almozini: Monteiro’s films are beautiful and rewarding experiences. They are funny and as wild as their anathematic subjects, giving the viewer a chance to experience something unique and very unconventional. Monteiro experimented with storytelling by keeping loose narrative strands while using eccentric protagonists and pushing cinematic, aesthetic, and societal boundaries.

Give us a brief Monteiro biography.

Guest: Monteiro began his career in film first as a critic before receiving training abroad, at the London School of Film Technique—a schooling that to me expresses well Monteiro’s self-fashioned “outsider” status. Monteiro, who was born in 1939, was unlike many European filmmakers who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s in that he was not an ardent or self-professed cinephile who saw his films as engaged in a type of conversation with the directors that had influenced him. Monteiro was instead equally interested in other arts, literature, painting, poetry, and he understood his films to be extensions and cinematic expressions of literary, painterly and poetic ideas and ideals. Monteiro’s films trace a really fascinating trajectory—from the beautifully austere early films that uproot dark, foundational Portuguese myths Paths (a.k.a. 1979’s Veredas) and his first masterpiece Silvestre to the increasingly playful later work, such as the ribald Recollections of the Yellow House, in which Monteiro himself often appeared as the lead actor. In these films Monteiro casts himself in the recurrent role of João de Deus, named for the Portuguese born saint of prostitutes, fishermen, and the sick, but a wholly secular figure driven by obscure and perverse sexual proclivities. Monteiro’s films are increasingly obsessed with ritual and light—and develop a wonderfully hypnotic rhythm, like [Monteiro’s last film] Come and Go, from 2003, which includes many scenes of a prematurely aged, and actually quite sick, Monteiro gliding through a sun-drenched early summer Lisbon perched in the back of a public bus, like a king in a plastic throne, as the dappled light pulses in bright sunbursts, transforming the bus into almost a cinematic device.

What’s his reputation in the Portuguese film community? In world cinema? Why isn’t he better known in the States?

Guest: Monteiro is still considered something of an iconoclast and a decisive figure in Portugal. While recognized as one of the major directors of the postwar period, he has not achieved anywhere near the level of recognition of Manoel de Oliveria, with whom he was an approximate contemporary for many years. One reason for the scant attention paid to Monteiro in this country is the fact that Monteiro’s films were never released in the U.S. and only very occasionally screened at North American festivals. With the exception of the better-known films such as Recollections of the Yellow House (which is probably Monteiro’s most “popular” film), Silvestre, and Come and Go, the films have simply not been available. The Harvard Film Archive organized touring retrospective is, in fact, the first and most extensive Monteiro series in the U.S., and hopefully it will awaken interest in this incredibly important artist, especially considering the great enthusiasm we are seeing today for younger Portuguese filmmakers such as Pedro Costa and João Pedro Rodrigues.

Almozini: Monteiro has a high reputation in world cinema and among film programmers. While he is well regarded and valued in intellectual circles of the Portuguese film community, he is also viewed as a provocateur, someone who shocks and not just shows scenic postcards of Portugal. His films have been screened and distributed in Europe, certainly in France where I had the opportunity to see several of his works in theatrical release. The current “art film” industry in America is not as open-minded with regard to international cinema as it was in the ’60s and ’70s, especially when films aren’t deemed “commercial.” Monteiro’s work is definitely not for mainstream taste and distributors are businesses, after all. Sex sells and even though there is plenty of it in his films, sex has to be, well, sexy, and appealing—the exact opposite of what Monteiro depicts.

Point of clarification: Is this an HFA-organized retro that BAM has booked? How did this series come about?

Guest: The series was, indeed, organized by the Harvard Film Archive. Florence did such a fabulous job with the Manoel de Oliveira series a few years ago now that I thought we should return the favor with another retrospective dedicated to a titian of contemporary Portuguese cinema. This means it’s Florence’s turn next!

Your description of the Come and Go bus scene is quite wonderful. That’s also the movie where a god fucks the Monteiro character to death with a giant strap-on. It’s safe to say, I think, that Monteiro often mixes moments of lyrical beauty with extremely dark humor. What does he get by doing this? How would you describe his sense of humor?

Guest: Monteiro’s dark humor and its constant eruption, especially in the late films, at unexpected and often seemingly inappropriate moments is just one expression of his willful iconoclasm. By treating the polymorphously perverse as if it were a sacred ritual, such as the consensual violation of the ice cream “maiden” in 1995’s God’s Comedy, Monteiro generates a poetic and deeply provocative confusion between the sacred and the profane.

He didn’t start out as a cinephile, but movies have since become an important part of Monteiro’s work (just watch his wonderful 1995 short film, Passeio com Johnny Guitar). Movies tell our new myths. They help us form ourselves as fairy tales and legends once did—Michael Corleone as the modern Gilgamesh, say. How does Monteiro approach myth and legend in his films? Does he treat the myth and magic of the movies the same way he does a fairy tale like 2000’s Snow White (based on the author Robert Walser’s version), or are the tactics different?

Guest: I think some of Monteiro’s strongest works are his ambitious early films—Veredas and Silvestre—that set out to understand the poetry and dark, and dangerous, sexual potency of deep rooted national myths. Monteiro’s retells, or rather reinvents, these myths, in both cases by creating a rich, combinatory and intensely cinematic mosaic of different myths and legends. The formal rigor and intense austerity of the two films give them a haunting, otherworldly quality—a sense of infinite, deep time—not unlike the longue durée explored by the Annales School of historians. Monteiro understood, as any viewing of these incredibly immersive films makes abundantly clear, the resonant power of the visual—or rather, the cinematic—image as akin to those legends engrained in the popular, shared, imagination of a nation. His stark, theatrical rendering of the Bluebeard legend in Silvestre, for example, offers a cinematic equivalent of the spare finality of myths, of fairy tales—that offer the most violent, the most outrageous, as plain stated fact. I think the approach is somewhat different, more playful, in Snow White, largely because of its creative fidelity to Walser’s text.

Another form of myth and legend for him, I think, is Portuguese national history, which he probably confronts most explicitly in Veredas [a story of couples fleeing their elders across different eras and different parts of Portugal]. Do his films carry any kind of messages about modern Portugal? If so, what and how?

Guest: Monteiro’s “political messages” remain deliberately cryptic, not unlike Rodrigues. With the possible exception of his early and wonderful documentary intervention against U.S. imperialism, What Should I Do with This Sword?, Monteiro remains a poet rather than a polemicist—even though he takes on subjects, especially in the early works, that would seem to carry quite heavy political burdens. We might think of Silvestre, for example—or Snow White, for that matter—as works of radical feminism, but these are just one dimension of these rich texts. And the same is true for Recollections of the Yellow House in which the boarding house and asylum can be read as crystallizations of the nation, communities ruled by eccentric yet strong willed petty dictators…but, again, such a reading in no way “explains” or closes the film in any way.

As you mentioned, Monteiro often acts in his films, often as a sort of Everyschmuck. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s written that Chaplin’s acting in Monsieur Verdoux is inseparable from his direction. Is this true for Monteiro? How are his acting and directing linked? How does he use himself as an actor, and how does his usage distinguish him from other actor-directors?

Guest: The connection to Chaplin is great, although there is also Monteiro’s uncanny resemblance to Keaton and a similar deadpan, stone-face resistance to emotion—although perhaps more detached and a time somewhat cynically. I’d say that Monteiro’s presence as actor embodies a set of attitudes, a world view imbued with rich contradictions that pervade his films—an austere dandyism, a religious perversity, a sense of comic tragedy, a type of slapstick fatalism.

I’m very glad you mentioned Costa and Rodrigues, and not just because all three deserve greater attention. When I watch a Monteiro film named after John Wayne [The Hips of J.W.] that includes documentary footage of actual soldiers, I can’t help but think of the way Costa comments on Portugal’s legacy of colonialism by remaking a classic zombie movie into Casa de Lava; when I listen to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” unfold over the transvestite’s story in Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man, I can’t help but think of the way Monteiro also plays extraordinarily emotional music over a distant, calm, often still camera setup, daring you to feel. How has influenced Monteiro influenced the new Portuguese cinema?

Guest: I am only beginning to grasp the legacy of radicalism in Portuguese cinema so I don’t feel totally able to understand the span and scope of Monteiro’s influence. Obviously, Oliveira figures very, very large in this legacy of cinematic radicalism, one in which film is engaged in an intimate and ongoing dialogue with the other arts—painting, poetry, theater, literature. I see Monteiro as deeply embedded into this rich history, as one key figure certainly but also not the only one. My intuition is that we should be discussing certain Portuguese writers and poets as equally influential, but I’m only just beginning to explore this.

What films are you most excited about in the series, and why?

Almozini: This retrospective is a very rare opportunity to see these extraordinary films projected on the big screen. Personally, I would strongly recommend to, at least, see Silvestre, Recollections of the Yellow House, and God’s Comedy, if that is all you have time for!

Guest: I am very excited for audiences coming to films like Silvestre and Snow White for the first time, the films that in my mind offer some of the best entry points into Monteiro’s cinema. I’m personally very excited to see all of the films on the big screen. Monteiro’s mise-en-scène becomes so wonderfully complex and nuanced, in ways that can only be appreciated projected in a theater.