Study, nymphs, the spreading trees as you gather your flowers in their shade, how they were lovers in former days and their trunks even now bear their load of pain.
—From Luís de Camões' "As doces cantilenas que cantavam"; To the Fawns, transl. Landeg White
Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.
When João César Monteiro sits on a bench under the protecting branches of the Cupressus lusitanica (Mexican Cypress) in Lisbon’s Jardim do Príncipe Real in his final film Vai~E~Vem, he is posing for an image that will survive him; an image bound to life and death, the tree and those that breathe under its shade.
Whoever visits the Portuguese capital today will not find the same feeling Monteiro captured so vividly and tenderly, sitting under this more than 140-year-old tree. Tourists have conquered the park that used to be a popular meeting point for beggars, lovers, drug dealers, crooks and cinephiles. Young people climbed up the tree and smoked pot in the canopy. The tree has often been the victim of vandalization and its beautiful trunk has had to resist rivers of garbage since the park was built on top of Lisbon’s water reservoir in the mid-19th century. Yet, if you come early enough and sit for some time and close your eyes, the strong smell of the cypress, the cooling breeze permeating the impressive, umbrella-like crown, the play of light and shadow, and the whispering of its leaves will still reveal the secrets that belong to the present world just as much as they do to the afterlife.
The Mexican cypress is an evergreen timber tree native to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. It produces a fine, straight-grained lumber and grows at an altitude of 1000 to 3000 meters. The white cedar, as the tree is also called, can reach a height of 35 meters and its conical, dense crown is a sight to behold even if it does not always look as spectacular as the Cedro do Buçaco (named after the garden which preceded the park) which has to be supported with massive stakes. The tree is commonly planted ornamentally in parks and in some countries it is even used as a Christmas tree. Since it requires mild winters, it is hard to find such a tree in most of Europe, but it is quite common in Portugal. The cypress in Príncipe Real is a bit like Monteiro. It is beautiful, dangerous, powerful, tender, delicate, and rough.
Monteiro was already very ill when he shot the film. It is a goodbye letter of sorts, a last rebellion, the work dedicated to all that appears, reappears and vanishes. We follow the last days in the life of João Vuvu, oscillating between vulgar wisdom and tender anarchy, this man living in the realm of fiction as well as in the middle of the noise of the world. Wearily, yet full of wit, he searches for beauty and resistance and every description, every image, every touch helps him to live on a bit longer. Seven times throughout the film he visits the cypress and sits close to it. He interacts with people, children, city pigeons and an angel. Compared to other occasions in the film, his alter ego João Vuvu speaks very little there. He observes, looks around, rests. The camera chooses its position in relation to the tree. It is a calm and eternal presence in the film. It gives shelter to those that seek it, and its breathtaking branches are home to a secret threshold into another world. At that point in time, the filmmaker lived very close to the tree but, as we can see in the film, he still had to take the bus to go there because he was too weak to walk. He takes the bus no.100 at the bus stop in Rua Nova da Piedade and goes to the park. Geography is essential in approaching Monteiro. He does not fake it or as he once declared: “Cinema may be a fraud (like Godard said) but it may be overcome.”
Actually, this was not the first time Monteiro filmed the cedar-of-Goa, as it was mistakenly called in colonial times when the tree, which was first introduced to Portugal in the 17th century, was thought to derive from India. In his second film Quem Espera por Sapatos de Defunto Morre Descalço the protagonists discuss sitting on the bench under the tree. It’s almost the same shot until the famous actor Luís Miguel Cintra jumps onto the bench and screams. This coming and going through mirrors and ideas, films and life, is central to the Portuguese’s work. Being close to death, the circular appearance of the tree, gave Monteiro a beautiful vanishing point in which we can feel the gravity of the world as well as the battle between chastity, desire and mortality.
Throughout the film we encounter different circular shapes culminating in the famous final shot of Monteiro’s eyes which cease to blink but still look at us. The circles lend a spiritual air to Vai~E~Vem, an air that might overwhelm those that are used to ideas of life in which there are stages, progress, careers and success. This is a film by someone who left it all behind and who encountered the true movements of things closer to the life cycle of a tree than the life story of famous actors. However, as the tree consists of dead and living parts alike, João Vuvu, who has been rightfully compared to Nosferatu, also moves along the threshold between being alive and being gone. It seems as if the coming and going evoked by his film does not only concern the people he meets or the places he visits, but also different sides of the mirror: life and death, being someone else and being oneself, workers and state authority, woman and man.
It’s no coincidence that, at the end of the film, he sees Daphne up in the tree. This mythological figure that transformed into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s advances tells him: “I see you all the time.“ Monteiro would like to reach her, to climb up to her but he can’t. Daphne is not to be conquered, not to be reached. Trying to kiss someone in the second they are transforming into a tree is like looking death in the eye. It’s time itself that shows in this sudden transformation and the only thing that remains for the lover left behind is either to stare into the abyss or move on without regret. Since Monteiro suffered from cancer it is interesting to note that the leaves of the Mexican cypress are used to treat the disease. There is life in those trees that transcends our tired bodies!
The image of an apparition on the top of a tree strongly reminds one of Huillet’s and Straub’s Dalla Nube alla Resistenza, filmmakers that Monteiro admired a lot. Their beautiful idea (Cesare Pavese doesn’t mention a tree in Dialogues with Leucò) to stage the dialogue between Nephele and Ixion with her sitting on a tree strongly mirrors religious ideas about trees as ladders to the world of god(s). Apparitions and sudden transformations reveal the true life of trees, their mythological realm which, in the case of the Mexican cypress, is also fueled by its branches which look like the arms of a goddess.
For a few seconds Monteiro superimposes the image of these arms with his own image sitting on the bench. It’s a shot of true transition, maybe it’s a glance into the only journey without return. But then again, this is Monteiro, and not only did he shoot a different version of the ending in which he meets another woman under the tree and is revived once more, but it is also true that death is not final in his case which is the case of cinema and of all the trees that survive us.
Thank you very, very much for all the help and generosity: Margarida Gil, Ricardo Matos Cabo, Marta Mateus & Mário Fernandes.