Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. João Nicolau's John From (2015), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from May 12 - June 11, 2017 as a Special Discovery.
How can we begin to explain why João Nicolau is such a charming oddity in a Portuguese film scene that seems to thrive on individuality and personality? You do not mess with Colonel Tapioca lightly, as someone says at some point in John From, Nicolau’s second feature: the reference is both to a character from the adventures of Tintin and to a Spanish “adventure wear” brand that was very popular in Portugal in the 1990s. Nicolau’s films are full of these little rabbit holes that enrich the tales he’s spinning and sometimes make it seem as if you’ve been mysteriously inducted into the secret society of the Republic of Telheiras.
Having said that, Colonel Tapioca is as relevant to the plot of John From as is Paulo Rodrigo, the made-up name high-schooler BFFs Rita and Sara (the extraordinarily poised newcomers Júlia Palha and Clara Riedenstein) call each other. But it’s in these apparently throwaway elements that Nicolau’s films coalesce into portraits of someone in their native habitat. The word “habitat” is appropriate, since Rita develops an obsessive crush on their new neighbor, photographer Filipe Mesquita (Filipe Vargas), whose work has been presented on a small-scale exhibition about Melanesia in their school. In Rita’s teenage benevolent-stalker-mind, Telheiras, the leisurely, middle-class planned community where she lives becomes Vanuatu, the Melanesian island where the legend of John From, an American serviceman who will return to lead the country into a new era, still holds true. You’re reminded of John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef or George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient.
But João Nicolau would be very adamant and tell you he does not come from a cinephile culture. He said so in a 2010 interview; he studied anthropology, started dabbling into film editing, and before he knew it he had two shorts in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight (2006’s Rapace and 2009’s Song of Love and Health) and was part of “Miguel Gomes’ posse” at his Lisbon production company O Som e a Fúria. (He was one of the “seven dwarf” alter egos in Gomes’ debut feature, 2004’s The Face You Deserve, having also collaborated in editing a few of his shorts; Mariana Ricardo, Gomes’s regular screenwriter, is also a co-writer in John From). João Nicolau tells the stories he wants to tell and he’s lucky enough to be able to tell them the way he wants to, with the support of a group of friends who share his understanding of storytelling and filmmaking as a space of purely personal freedom.
So you can safely assume that Donovan’s Reef or The World of Henry Orient would not be obvious influences. Could we evoke mumblecore and its generational portrait of aimless youths talking endlessly to avoid their future? No, not really either, thought the amiable rambling of Nicolau’s quirky plots, where inertia is a strong motivator (behold! The iPod oracle!), is enough to suggest it. Yes, this is a film about the inner life of a teenager finding her way into the world—Rita is a latch-key kid whose parents, played by Leonor Silveira and Adriano Luz, are benevolent but distant presences transfigured into exotic princes by her imagination—and about the need for escape from a rather boring daily life (but don’t we all want to escape from our routine when we’re over-imaginative teenagers?).
But where does that escape lead? In Nicolau’s debut feature, The Sword and the Rose (2010), it led into a surreally cartoonish adventure caper for its twenty-something hero, escaping into the open ocean on a Portuguese man of war with his best friends and sailing the high seas as the Pirates of the Plutex. It’s all about asking where does growing up lead you, and that’s why and where John From works all its wonders. It’s a film about that summer moment when you realize adult life is just around the corner and you wish you could enter it on your own terms, with a dashing photographer who just returned from the distant exotic islands of Oceania turning the leisurely streets of Telheiras into a wondrous place of magic. It’s Rita’s summer, in a way, just as Alessandro Comodin followed someone’s magic summer in Giacomo’s Summer, which Nicolau edited. Comodin, not surprisingly, returned the favor on John From.
Yes, there is a family resemblance; yes, João Nicolau belongs to a family of filmmakers even if he’s still looking for the precise place where he feels at home. He may not yet have found it; The Sword and the Rose felt as if Nicolau had thrown everything but the kitchen sink into it and some of it overflowed; John From by contrast can feel occasionally gossamer-thin or overly whimsical (a more experienced director would, however, probably miss that whimsy). But let me just say something else about João Nicolau: the way he films Lisbon is magnificent. John From’s love letter to the very seventies-ish open spaces and stairwells of Telheiras pictures the real Lisbon, not the augmented, the idealized, the tourist Lisbon. It reminded me of the way Paulo Rocha filmed Lisbon in his 1960s masterpieces or of how João Salaviza shot the city in his underrated feature debut Mountain (2015). Maybe that’s where the anthropology comes in. But then, aren’t all teenagers perfect subjects for anthropology studies?