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The Invisible Life: Dreaming in the Night

The long awaited return to filmmaking of Portuguese director Vítor Gonçalves, whose one film, from 1986, is now finally joined by another.

There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can't do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you."

—Franz Kafka, "Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way."

Above: Director Vítor Gonçalves

Behold the Palace Square in Lisbon—or rather, Praça do Comércio, where the Royal Ribeira Palace stood for nearly two hundred years. In the 18th century, the palace was destroyed by the Great Lisbon Earthquake, never to be restored (instead was built a new one, though, not for the King to live) hence the new name—The Square of Commerce. Here, in the seat of Fascist power, tens of thousands people would gather to listen to Salazar's orations (see Brandos Costumes by Alberto Seixas Santos); then came the Carnation Revolution. The Portuguese government still resides here in the 21st century. The statue of King Jose I mounted on a horse has seen it all: the long-lost might of the empire; the totalitarian regime that kept the country out of World War II; the farewells to the colonial past and the dreams of communism, the advent of free enterprise and severe recession. This equestrian monument is what Hugo observes, without fail, through the window of his government office. He is the main, and pretty much sole, character of Vítor Gonçalves' A vida invisível (The Invisible Life). Soon after the excavators have scarred it beyond recognition, the square looks, once again, just like it used to, but without it’s authentic aura anymore.

What could possibly rival Vítor Gonçalves's triumphant comeback as this year's most exhilarating and intriguing film event? In 1986 Gonçalves made his first feature, A Girl in Summer (Uma rapariga no verão), assisted by the then-fledgling filmmaker Pedro Costa whose own debut, Blood (O sangue), came out three years later with Gonçalves's help. A Girl in Summer was instantly hailed as a masterpiece upon release; António Reis, Gonçalves's mentor from the Lisbon Film School, called his pupil "a friend of beauty" and quipped that his work possessed enough depth and maturity to cap off someone's career. Alas, his words proved to be prophetic: Gonçalves took over Reis's position as senior lecturer yet never again, until recently, ventured into filmmaking (except for a 1988 TV movie, Midnight [Meia Noite], currently presumed lost). Fast forward 27 years to 2013-2014. Rome Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival. Invisible Life.  

Above: A Girl in Summer

 A Girl in Summer depicted, with great accuracy, the first generation to have grown up in a new, democratic Portugal. Young Isabel lives in the countryside with her sister and father. The father writes scripts for her boyfriend Diogo's radio shows. In her dreams, Isabel drops out of school and moves to Lisbon to live and work with Diogo (played by the wonderful Diogo Doria), who is oblivious to her longings. Every passing summer marks the growing divide between them and the life they once wished they could lead. Isabel starts writing by herself, in secret, but Diogo's agreement to work with her comes too little too late. Afraid of being "just like everybody else," she nevertheless gets an office job. There was a time when she wanted to see the Bedouin from her father's fairytales, but a random stranger in a drunken haze at a bar, a traveler and a hunter, assures her on good authority that all the Bedouin are now gone, conceding Africa to tanks and missiles. It may be because they live by night, but Isabel and Diogo are always late: their love runs its course; the father's health deteriorates; the sister leaves; everything seems to be ill-timed and out of place. An unmistakable product of the 1980s in spirit, mood, even in the way the world around the characters lends itself to 16mm film, the movie tells a universal tale of the disappointments of youth as well as a very specific one—of a particular, disillusioned generation stuck in Portugal as if after the end of History.     

Above: A Girl in Summer

"There was a night when I couldn't face to go home." This is the opening line of The Invisible Life. A truly "midnight" kind of filmmaker, Gonçalves is virtually unthinkable outside of the hours of darkness, as he creates a world populated by nonplussed flâneurs, daydreamers, and escapists who trust their imaginations more than other people's rationales. Diogo in A Girl in Summer confesses he hates working after dark, yet night after night he burns the midnight oil in a dimly-lit studio giving voice to someone else's flights of fancy. Hugo, the civil servant in The Invisible Life, enjoys, most of all, his lonely lingering in the empty government building after hours. In both films, Gonçalves' Lisbon is woven out of dark alleys and dusky parking lots, late-night bars and tiny rooms and narrow hotel hallways.

Above: The Invisible Life

António, Hugo's friend and co-worker, tells him they won't be working together anymore because he has to have another surgery. António has no-one but Hugo, and vice versa. An owner of a huge apartment, Hugo only occupies the most sterile section of the property, a space of banished memories. Until the end, he looks on through the window that serves as a partition between him and the outside world; in a way, he is not unlike those of us who learn the life lessons from the movie screen. The imminent separation from António thrusts Hugo deep into the recesses of the past. Consumed by insomnia, he now reminisces about his girlfriend Adriana whom he saw two years ago, and six years before that. Two people in a cafe; an awkward silence; the precision and finesse of the director's mise en scène. "Your hair is graying," Adriana notices, just like the mother in Ozu's The Only Son points out, not without endeared surprise, that her grown-up son's hands have grown, too. And just like Isabel before her, Adriana has given up on her aspirations. "I'm not an architect anymore," she curtly replies putting on a flight attendant uniform. Gonçalves sure knows how to portray one's resignation and acquiescence.    

Manoel de Oliveira claimed A Girl in Summer was infused not merely with sadness but with veritable despair—an emotional stalemate. Whatever country Portugal became after the coup d'état, how are these young people supposed to deal with their lives and attendant confusion? The Invisible Life hints at a pining after opportunities lost and acute awareness of time slipping away, at nostalgia and a sudden realization that death, as an ultimate loss of flesh, is near. In the intro to his book Devotional Cinema, the experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky admits that no emotion is a human invention, and even our ability to love and admire the quotidian and art has not been discovered by man. In fact, we have made very few independent discoveries; all our feelings are inherent, later augmented or dulled by our own perception. If Dorsky is right, is there anything in the whole wide world that truly belongs to humankind? Perhaps we're only authors of our own figments of imagination. The dreams enveloping Hugo are, first and foremost, the fodder of film as an art form.

Above: Julie Brook's 8mm footage in The Invisible Life

The narrative here is strewn with mysterious, vacant landscapes filmed in 8mm by land artist Julie Brook: mountains, seas and giants, mist and clouds and caves. These images of a world unknown to mankind might have been captured at any point in history, had the movie camera existed longer. This is the footage the protagonist inherits from António. As he watches the images, he is overcome by a feeling at once bizarre and relatable (before she'd leave, Isabel, too, would listen to her father's tales on the radio for similar reasons). Hugo himself could have made these films instead of António; being able to narrate a late friend's past as if it were your own, but long forgotten, appears to be another built-in capacity of film. At first we know nothing of these images' origin; the enigmatic beauty of The Invisible Life lies in its attempts to encapsulate someone else's gaze.    

One last look at life. António is sitting in a wheelchair in a hospital park. His eyes shoot up toward the sky, then focus on a gardener trimming a palm sapling. The next cut switches the POV: now we see the sky and the gardener through António's eyes. This scene is an example of what Dorsky calls a "self-symbol," a symbol that is equal to itself, in all its clarity and resultant profundity—one that doesn't reduce the represented world to a function, nor props up the film's narrative, nor illustrates a certain point. In Ozu's The Only Son, the mother and her child, likewise, watched the drifting clouds on a summer walk, unable to express their feelings verbally. And Bresson's Knights of the Round Table, similarly, would rise, in one last jolt of exultant desperation, before tumbling down and gazing upward, far into the sky filled with flying birds. What are the last words António can say to his friend? His gaze is transmitted to him through this 8mm footage, a chance for Hugo to see the world through his eyes and feel that he could have been an António, too.

Above: 8mm footage in The Invisible Life

As far as I know, Vítor Gonçalves never meant to connect The Invisible Life to A Girl in Summer, although they obviously form a diptych. Even the power dynamics is almost the same: a couple in love plus a symbolic father. António, Adriana, and Hugo could be the characters from his previous film, revisited years later. The temporal rift between the two movies is instructive in that A Girl in Summer would be impossible in the changed world of today. The rules of mise en scène have been altered. A Girl in Summer is rigidly theatrical, its frame only big enough for two: Isabel and her father, or Isabel and Diogo, or Diogo and Isabel's father. The frames of The Invisible Life are, for the most part, solitary; loose in structure, the film is more of a fantasia, an elaborate blend of memories and day-dreams and simply, dreams. Flirting with film noir tropes, Gonçalves employs voiceover and sends a demonic-looking, chain-smoking villain to harass Hugo on sinister, winding stairs (it's no coincidence that Fritz Lang's The Indian Tomb is on TV in one scene). Deftly and expertly handled by Gonçalves, light and shadow remain, for the duration of the film, in an intense battle: while Adriana likes the former, Hugo prefers the latter.

Above: The Invisible Life

To this day, wandering around Lisbon, one is likely to run into an abandoned building in severe disrepair. Do buildings have memories? In A Girl in Summer, Isabel's "sick" house is said to remember her mother. Hugo walks along the empty hallways in a ministry of a country that used to be a superpower, but now cannot find its place in the modern world. What does this building remember? This speculation must have resonated with Gonçalves personally, seeing that his colonel father was among the Carnation Revolution leaders and later was appointed Prime Minister in 1974-1975. The bold, doomed project of transforming Portugal into a socialist country was also his brainchild. Few directors are capable of portraying failure as poignantly as Gonçalves does.

Above, left: A Girl in Summer. Above, right: The Invisible Life

António's dying wish is for Hugo to visit his turn-of-the-century house and sort out his stuff. What happens to our houses when we leave? All the objects in the house remember him: pictures, his mother's bracelets, the footage I've already described. In his room, Hugo keeps an empty fish-tank, a silent witness to his and Adriana's love. The government building is losing its inhabitants, floor by floor, due to the recession. Hugo moves to a different office where António has never been, which throws into question António's very existence. "I imagined someone coming into my house after I had died," he ruminates, " Who would that person be?"

João Bénard da Costa, head of the Lisbon Cinemateca and renowned film historian, wrote about A Girl in Summer: “Images pass us by. They pass like life and in passing lies their essence. Isn’t it also the essence of cinema? That’s what the great directors taught us. To their names we must to now add the name of Vitor Goncalves.” Strangely, no matter what aesthetic modifications the director's style might have undergone over the years, these words still apply to The Invisible Life.

The transience of time is captured in one single image—that of a renovated Square of Commerce, where the Royal Palace once stood. Transience and mutability. “But you are such a negligble speck, and the world is such a big word” (George Perec, A Man Asleep). Life is, indeed, invisible: one moment we're here, the next we are gone. Just like all those invisible, unnoticed people who flocked to the square to stroll and march, to raise their hands in fascist salutes or take part in anti-government rallies; those who craved justice and loved and were loved in return. They all lived and died before our time, and we will never learn anything about them. The only one to remember them will be the King Jose statue—that is, unless another earthquake knocks it down.

Above: The Invisible Life

Translated by Anton Svynarenko.

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