Rita Azevedo Gomes: Desire the World! It Shall be Yours

On the melancholic sweetness of Portuguese director Rita Azevedo Gomes.
Olaf Möller

MUBI's retrospective Out of this World: The Cinema of Rita Azevedo Gomes is showing July – September, 2020.

Above: The Portuguese Woman

It's staggering how complete the cinema of Rita Azevedo Gomes is already in her first film, a feature no less: O Som da Terra a Tremer (1990) is an explosion of feeling and thought and invention carried by the profoundest of knowledge about cinema and the arts. Thus, it is most lamentable that it took another two decades plus for her to be recognized by international film culture at its most general level, with A Woman’s Revenge (2012), a work refined and lean, almost minimalist, très Portuguese à la Oliveira, thus similar to other films, other auteurs from Europe's western-most nation—and therefore welcome with open arms at all the places usually deemed right.

While one can easily say that in the end it all worked out, one has to immediately mention that the film Azevedo Gomes presented after A Woman’s Revenge, the epistolary essay-epic Correspondências. Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen - Jorge de Sena, 1959 – 1978 (2016), was met with as much a brightly laudatory yet befuddled frown as was her latest, Danses Macabres, Skeletons, and Other Fantasies (2019, Co-Directors: Pierre Léon & Jean-Louis Schefer), which followed her second big festival hit, The Portuguese Woman (2018), which Jorge Mourinha wrote so lovingly about here not long ago. Mind that Correspondências and Danses Macabres, Skeletons, and Other Fantasies are closer to the aesthetic core of Azevedo Gomes' cinema in the way they both refuse to be anything pinpointedly proper in terms of genre and form—feline and fluid, curious and surprising, they seem to re-invent themselves incessantly while never stumbling over an image or a sound over-willed and therefore boastful, tasteless, false, and wrong. This could be said, for example, about the importance of The Portuguese Woman's artistically most perplexing choice: that of Ingrid Caven as a stage manager-like appearance from another space-time-continuum intoning, among other things, lines from a Minnelied by Walther von der Vogelweide—Azevedo Gomes' simply had to mess around with the reality she created, just a bit. That she didn't in A Woman’s Revenge shows the gravity of things here. 

Above: A Woman's Revenge

Manoel de Oliveira is commonly mentioned as an inspiration for her cinema, also by Azevedo Gomes herself; with A 15ª pedra: Manoel de Oliveira e João Bénard da Costa em Conversa filmada por Rita Azevedo Gomes (2005) she paid homage to him as well as another major mentoring figure cum présence fétiche under the name Duarte de Almeida: João Bénard da Costa, the former director of Cinemateca Portuguesa, where Azevedo Gomes works as a programmer—so, yes, she doesn't depend on filmmaking for her income, she's an employee of the Portuguese state. But when one looks at her formative years, another name stands out: that of the late Luís Noronha da Costa, a towering figure of Portuguese art since the 60s, connected in a légère fashion to the local variety of Pop Art, but since the 70s was on a track all his own. Another name from that sphere should also be mentioned: António Palolo, if only because a painting of his is seen under the end titles of O Som da Terra a Tremer. Azevedo Gomes originally trained as a painter and sculptress which might explain how she became a member of the circle around Noronha da Costa; who, again, with the films he made during the 70s and 80s, belongs to that lone moment when Portugal had something like an experimental cinema culture (instead of isolated figures) which was animated mainly by artists like him or António Palolo. Key to the sculptural praxis of Noronha da Costa was the concept of collage—which in cinema became extremely important for Azevedo Gomes: as the glory of films like O Som da Terra a Tremer, Correspondências, and maybe (just maybe) her greatest work, Altar (2003), lies in their dedication to fusing aesthetically wildly different elements into a diverse while coherent whole. Azevedo Gomes gained her first experiences in filmmaking on Noronha da Costa's sets, as the director's assistant on his two biggest endeavors, both heavily inspired by Terence Fisher, D. Jaime ou a Noite Portuguesa (1974) and O Construtor de Anjos (1978), his magnum opus. It's only after this that she began to work for the likes of Oliveira, Eduardo de Gregório, and Werner Schroeter (who was also a major elective affinity of Noronha da Costa).

Admittedly, it's difficult to discuss the importance of Luís Noronha da Costa for Rita Azevedo Gomes, if only because his films are almost invisible. She has mentioned him often, and also suggested screenings of his works to this festival or that institution abroad, especially since the Cinemateca Portuguesa restored his oeuvre in the early years of the 2010s—but so far to little avail. And make no mistake: Noronha da Costa's influence goes deep—the moment one thinks during, for example, Altar, The fogginess of some of the images does resemble similar beclouding effects in his paintings but isn't that pushing the case too much?, a painting of his is seen where a female figure vanishes in a haze (her 2005 short A Conquista de Faro ends with a long shot of a donkey at night lost alongside a highway dissolving for moments in a blur!).

Instants like this stress not only the connection between her and him, but also of her cinema and painting in general. Let's only mention here that one can spend a lot of time with studying the way Azevedo Gomes uses canvases in her films, suggesting for example that Danses Macabres, Skeletons, and Other Fantasies might actually be less a bagatelle than a key work for her oeuvre as it circles around medieval paintings; and isn't Manoel de Oliveira placed before a triptych from the same period showing a Passion in A 15ª; and doesn't her Stefan Zweig-adaptation A Colecção Invisível (2009) say that you only possess but never own art?

Above: Correspondências

But enough of the influences, even if  Azevedo Gomes loves talking about  Noronha da Costa, Oliveira, or Ingmar Bergman (she even made a pilgrimage to Fårö—a story worth being written down or filmed at some point). They're always there, and why not?—but they're not the key to her cinema. For there's something to her films very much her own, and that's their lightness of touch, breezi-, elusiveness. Watching A Woman’s Revenge or The Portuguese Woman on a small screen is a very different experience from watching them on a big screen—for in the latter, both feel lighter. With A Woman’s Revenge the difference is subtle also due to the stage-bound nature of this adventure in lovingly painted backdrops; while with The Portuguese Woman it's almost like watching a different film: it's only here that it's ironic tranquillity reveals its serenity.

Which is the word that describes best the particular beauty of Rita Azevedo Gomes' films in toto—even, or: especially, that of a bleaker work like Fragile as the World (2001), a melodrama of juvenile love and desire whose title is taken from a poem by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Collage is used by Azevedo Gomes to stress the fleetingness of things: the clang made by the cut from one kind of image to a totally different one might be loud at times and feel dramatic, but the general impression one gets of works like O Som da Terra a Tremer, Fragile as the World, Altar, or  Correspondências is that of a melancholic sweetness: a mind fully awake to the horrors of life that is unwilling to get defeated by them. Maybe A Woman’s Revenge and The Portuguese Woman are the extreme points of Azevedo Gomes' world: Woman Vanquished and Woman Triumphant—with all the rest in-between, an ever-different mix of impressions and expressions, defeats and glories. Happiness lies in realizing this. And a happy cinema Azevedo Gomes' certainly is.

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