A Walk Through the Past
Published on June 20th, 2012 | by Nathan Rogers-Hancock0
“The School of Reis: The Films and Legacy of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro” runs from June 22 – 28 at Anthology Film Archives.
The films of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro, just three features and a thirty-five minute short, are dear to the heart of the always vital legacy of Portuguese film making but so little known to American cineastes that they have often seemed like little more than rumors. Thankfully, Anthology Film Archives has programmed a series featuring not only their major work but also the work of their precursors and disciples, making this a commendable example of curatorial selection, not merely the public service of making these films available but actually putting forth an argument as to their continued relevance.
The films themselves are a somewhat trickier proposition. Ethnographic fiction, or documentary/fiction hybrids, all four Reis/Cordeiro films beg comparison at some point to the work of contemporary fellow travelers like Robert Gardner or Jean Rouch, but exist nonetheless in an aesthetic universe of their own. Having worked on Manoel de Oliveira’s epochal “Rite of Spring” in 1962, a tricky staged “documentary” focused on a rural passion play (helpfully programmed in this series, and arguably the most essential film here), Reis had iconoclastic ideas about documentary craft to begin with. Only the first of his and Cordeiro’s collaborations, “Jaime” (1974) is really a documentary in the accepted sense; ostensibly a portrait of a paranoid-schizophrenic painter who spent most of his life in Lisbon’s Miguel Bombarda sanatorium, the film spends most of its time floating around the monstrous interior of the sanatorium itself (used as a talismanic presence in the late work of João César Monteiro). Biographical details are kept to detailed close-ups of the paintings and the late artist’s handwriting—which itself is given nearly as much attention as the paintings; as soon as the voice of Louis Armstrong comes brawling onto the soundtrack, intoning the deathless words of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” the film becomes an allegory about imprisonment, a cri de coeur that resonates even more specifically in the pre-revolutionary context of 1974.
The idiosyncrasies of “Jaime” would be pushed even further in “Trás-os-Montes,” the 1976 film that made Reis and Cordeiro’s reputation and is certainly the most enduring work associated with either filmmaker (the follow up, “Ana”  is a worthy recapitulation of the same themes with less effect; their last film, “Rosa de Areia” (“The Sand Rose”)  is a disastrous attempt at entirely scripted narrative). On the face of it the film is an ethnographic accounting of a famously poverty stricken rural area of the country, using the journey by foot of two children as connective tissue. I practice the film is an often baffling, impressionistic portrait of the Portugal as a country haunted by ghosts, a post-revolution attempt to create a national cinema that could come to terms with its own past. Slower than molasses and possessing all the unique pictorial beauty of 16mm film shot in natural light, a soundtrack of broken mutterings and poetic half phrases, fables barely started and then abandoned in the telling, the film is absolutely sui generis.
Time has a strange way of clarifying a body of work; if ”Trás-os-Montes” may have seemed as if it belonged in a world of its own in the 1970s, it now seems like the proud godfather of an entire genre of ostentatiously contemplative documentary/fiction hybrids, a genre so omnipresent in today’s festival scene that it occasioned a New York Times Trend Piece. The Anthology series includes work by two of Reis and Cordeiro’s avowed disciples—former student João Pedro Rodrigues and Pedro Costa, whose recent films (“Colossal,” “Vanda’s Room”) may be more indicative of the possibilities of cinema in the new millennium than anyone else’s. His body of work is represented here by his 1989 debut “O Sangue” (“The Blood”), an unsettling chamber drama about a wayward family, draped in black and white; Costa would take an abrupt left hand turn from this style immediately after completing this film, but it stands alone as one of the strangest and most assured debut films of its generation, and certainly one of the crown jewels in this line-up.
Sadly it almost goes without saying that not a single one of these films are commercially available on American DVD. Given the overwhelming indifference to releasing any of these films on home video formats—even Costa, a rock star compared to his peers in this series, had to wait years to get a single film release—this series at Anthology may be the only chance to see these films in acceptable quality in the foreseeable future.