Between Miguel Gomes’s dialectically structured Tabu and, even more radically, João Pedro Rodrigues’s thoroughly elliptical docudrama, The Last Time I Saw Macao, it would seem that hardlined formal rigor is alive and well in Portugal. Rodrigues, like his universally well-regarded national compatriot Pedro Costa before him, is rapidly establishing himself as one of the country’s most progressive, challenging filmmakers and cultural critics, and his latest effort should further his repute in a manner befitting its obliqueness; it follows its own clearly defined rules so closely that its theoretical appeal is precisely what will turn most audiences off. What one might described as an “observational drama” vaguely reminiscent of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, The Last Time I Saw Macoa distinguishes itself stylistically in two key regards. The first, inspired at least distantly by late-period Bresson, is to isolate both benign and propulsive action—from a conversation on the phone to a murder by the docks—and place it just outside the screen, so that what we see at any given moment is permanently removed from what’s actually happening, if only by a few degrees. And the second is that the protagonist of the story, and our direct surrogate in the environment, is never actually shown; because the camera alternates between explicit point-of-view shots and what are essentially travelogue-style snapshots of Macao, we see what he sees and what surrounds him, but never the man himself (his voiceover narration provides the film’s through line and very often serves an important explanatory as well as expository function).
With one brief but astounding exception, the film never deviates from this unique formal framework, and as a result it occasionally feels slightly over-determined, an experiment that may have made a better short than an outright feature. But such rigor produces a rhythm that’s immensely appealing for surprisingly long stretches, and though it sits at a kind of formal remove, it never feels distant or cold; one of its strengths is that, despite never glimpsing them, we come to care about these characters and their fates. That it manages to relate a story with emotional depth at all makes the experiment a resolute success, even if only a mild one. The story itself, in fact, is in a sense a gimmick of its own: In simple narrative terms, the film is actually a somewhat classical noir, and the collision of that noir sensibility with the borders of the aesthetic framework proves to be one of film’s most interesting elements. Unraveling a knotty, classically tense mystery without actually seeing any of it happen works much more often than it probably ought to.
Eisenstein once said that if images divide, sound unites, and that’s an aphorism I suspect Rodrigues had in mind while crafting this film. Its soundtrack very often seems like it’s an overlay lifted directly from another movie altogether, with sound effects implying action we can’t see and narration explaining events we never witness. The effect is odd but illuminating, suggesting a discordance in how we tend to process and sort out films as they unfold before us, as well as articulating a subtle argument that language informs our reading of all images to a surprising degree. An overheard kidnapping and murder, for instance, is gripping and severe even though the images shown as it happens are themselves perfectly innocuous. And photojournalistic montages of the streets and fixtures of Macao begin to take on a portentous, sometimes even rather sinister dimension when the diary-like narration tells of the corruption and violence lurking just beneath. Like Marker’s work in a similar mold, images of places and environments are enriched by what’s intoned over them, and the gulf between what’s said and what’s heard (the connections made, the ignorance lost) speaks directly to a power of the cinema so rarely brought to the screen.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.