“It doesn’t really matter where things come from. What matters is picking things up again, mess them up, try to push them forward in a different way. All of us do it, we’ve all been doing it all through time, and things haven’t really changed that much since Greece. What we can try is to do something that seems to be new, or that is shown in a whole different way—even if not necessarily intentionally.”
In a way, that’s what Rita Azevedo Gomes has been doing through her career as a filmmaker. A career, avowedly, somewhat confidential—her latest fiction, The Portuguese Woman, is only her 9th film since her 1990 debut O Som da Terra a Tremer—but one that has been quietly snowballing since 2012’s The Revenge of a Woman, to her own surprise, became a firm festival favorite.
Her 2016 poetic documentary essay Correspondences gained a main competition berth in Locarno. And, after premiering at Mar del Plata 2018, The Portuguese Woman was much acclaimed in the Berlinale Forum. Azevedo Gomes has also just premiered a new work in FIDMarseille’s official competition: Danses macabres, squelettes et autres fantaisies, a collaboration with filmmaker Pierre Léon and theorist Jean-Louis Schefer.
The collaborative nature of Danses macabres… is only the latest link in a chain of connections that at some point becomes a true rabbit’s den. Based on a 1924 novella by Austrian writer Robert Musil set in the Middle Ages, The Portuguese Woman was adapted for the screen by the legendary Portuguese novelist Agustina Bessa-Luís, a close collaborator of Manoel de Oliveira and someone whose writing inspired many of the late master’s finest works, like Francisca (1981) and Abraham’s Valley (1993).Bessa-Luís and Azevedo Gomes had already worked together in the 2005 short A Conquista de Faro, produced by another late Portuguese master, Paulo Rocha.
These are only two of the many “correspondences” you can make between Azevedo Gomes and key names in Portuguese art cinema. Another stems from her “day job” as programmer and art director for the Portuguese Cinemathèque, where she was a close accomplice of João Bénard da Costa, the critic and programmer that ran the institution from 1991 to 2008 and influenced generations of Portuguese cinephiles. In 2007, Azevedo Gomes shot A 15ª Pedra, the record of a two-hour encounter between Bénard da Costa and Oliveira, and a film she described, smiling, as a “personal confessional”: “I wanted to catch those two beings that were so important for my life together, on film, as I saw them in real life.” Bénard da Costa—under his acting nom de plume Duarte d’Almeida—also acted in films by both directors; it’s no surprise that Oliveira often props up when discussing Azevedo Gomes’ output.
Yet make no mistake: the filmmaker refuses all sorts of comparisons and prefers to see herself in a very specific lineage of filmmakers, both canonical and non-canonical. “I’m very honored to be compared to Manoel, but that would make me freeze,” as she said in Berlin, last February, while presenting The Portuguese Woman. “I’m also a lover of Ingmar Bergman, and, if I was Swedish, people would say I’m a disciple of Bergman… Yet I’m as much a disciple of Bergman as I am of Oliveira, of Carl Theodor Dreyer, of Werner Schroeter… and also of Titian or Caravaggio. All of them are present, but none of them are in my head when I’m shooting.”
Too many influences, she thinks, end up “poisoning the well”: “Every time I try to do something in the manner of someone else, Bergman for instance, it always turns out crap. And it’s terrible because that ruins you; it means that, obviously, I’ll never be able to make it like he did it. I don’t like the feeling, when I’m making a film, of suddenly remembering how somebody else did something, because I’ll never be able to reproduce it.”
Instead, Azevedo Gomes prefers to add something personal to those tropes—if you look at her filmography, you will find a peculiar desire for experimenting. Correspondences, for instance, is nominally an essay about the correspondence between two of Portugal’s greatest 20th century poets, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and Jorge de Sena. But instead of doing a traditional documentary, Azevedo Gomes placed actors (regulars like Rita Durão, Luís Miguel Cintra, or Francisco Nascimento) and non-actors (including programmer and critic Boris Nelepo or writer and filmmaker Pierre Léon), reading from the poets’ letters in living rooms, kitchens, patios, even seashore caves, and using period footage to fill in historical blanks. The result is a series of tableaux that can seem carefully composed, but were actually shot “on the fly”—the film was built piecemeal from takes shot with friends and acquaintances over a number of years, like a series of personal home movie reminiscences assembled into a cohesive, heterogeneous whole.
Azevedo Gomes assumes that experimentation. “I love challenges, I love to experiment, to find out how you do something, to try new things. That’s something I’m always willing to do. Even in a film like The Revenge of a Woman, which had a very rooted starting point, with a lot of text, it worked as a foundation, a source over which I could experiment with something different: making a scene with a lot of cuts in a place in a film constructed mostly of long one-take shots… It’s not inside me to make a film that would be ‘correct.’ Other people do it so much better than me.”
At the same time, part of the experimental nature of her work comes from the production limitations. In a film scene like Portugal’s, where budgetary issues make for a permanent struggle, Azevedo Gomes has made her entire career as an outsider scraping together the money for her work, either self-producing with the help of friends or collaborating every now and then with more established production houses.Her 2002 experimental fiction Altar was shot very much on her own, and the constraints imposed by the tight budget contributed to its austere visuals. Veteran producer Paulo Branco backed her second feature Frágil como o Mundo (2001), while Joana Ferreira and Isabel Machado’s CRIM Productions were behind Correspondences and The Revenge of a Woman.
This last work, based on the 1874 novella by French writer Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly and with a stunning lead performance from Rita Durão, was in fact the film that made Azevedo Gomes’ name known internationally. Its theatrical, distanced staging is a good example of her penchant for narrative experimentation. In The Revenge of a Woman you can already find the seeds of The Portuguese Woman: the idea of a narrator introducing the tale of a noblewoman fallen in disgrace has both a continuation and an inversion in the new film. Instead of an on-screen narrator (João Pedro Bénard in The Revenge of a Woman), we have Ingrid Caven, one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s (and modern art cinema’s) muses, playing a sort of “Greek chorus” that appears out of nowhere at regular intervals, as a ghostly, out-of-time presence that punctuates and silently comments on the work.
At times, Caven seems to be a distorted mirror image of the title character, an imperious dame in medieval times, played by fiery-haired Clara Riedenstein (the revelation of João Nicolau’s John From), unwilling to submit to the patriarchal society of the times. The German actress seems to be a flesh-and-blood portrait of Dorian Gray, showing the trials of time, while the real woman remains immaculate. Azevedo Gomes is intrigued by the connection—after all, her work has often referred to classic art—but hadn’t thought at all of Oscar Wilde’s book.
Instead, she speaks of contemporaries of Musil in early 20th century Europe, and especially of artist Paul Klee. “I was trying to explain to Ingrid something that was somewhat unexplainable: hers wasn’t exactly a role, it was more of a presence. And in the conversation something came up that helped us both: Paul Klee’s drawing Angelus Novus, the one that Walter Benjamin wrote an essay on. You know, the small drawing of the cutest angel with wings, being blown away by the wind, who, upon seeing all the world in ruins, all the rubbish that mankind shows us every day, wants to restart everything, rebuild everything from the ruins... That’s when everything started to make sense, and she had something to go on, something she could draw from.”
Quoting from Benjamin and Klee comes naturally to a filmmaker well-versed in classical art and classical filmmaking. After all, the new work, Danses macabres, is a collaboration with kindred spirits, a sort of museological road movie as Azevedo Gomes, Léon, and Jean-Louis Schefer contemplate and discuss art. In Berlin, Ingrid Caven spoke reverently of the director’s knowledge of art and culture, “the old beauties” as she says, and of her painterly eye for framing and staging.
But Azevedo Gones herself prefers to shy away from that. “It’s very difficult for us to define beauty, isn’t it?” she said. “Maybe there’s something about eternity, continuation… Beauty is a very personal thing. It’s not just about memory, it's about a state of enchantment for one another.” The exact state her films try to recreate in the viewer.