Dir/scr:Marco Martins. Port-Fr. 2005. 103mins.
Anatmospheric, yearning study of loss by first-time Portuguese director MarcoMartins, Alice was one of the strongest films in this year's Quinzainesidebar at Cannes. Sombre and dark in theme and look, this unflinching look ata father's search for his missing three-year-old daughter is not aSaturday-night-at-the-multiplex experience, but should attract arthousedistributors willing to take a gamble on the film's persuasive combination ofemotional pull and visual panache.
DirectorMartins heads up Portuguese ad production company Ministerio dos Filmes; butthis is not obviously an ad-man's film - unless it be in its highly effectivetallying of the medium with the message.
Thefilm opens with grainy, green-and-white footage of Mario (an impressive NunoLopes) wandering among the moving traffic handing out flyers. He looks like atramp or an asylum escapee, and it is only gradually that we realise that he'sthe walking incarnation of every parent's worst nightmare: a father whose smalldaughter disappeared into thin air, 193 days previously. As such, he is both afigure of pity and a social pariah, a haunted man made unclean by extrememisfortune. His wife Luisa (Beatriz Batarda) is less of a presence.
It'sonly around 40 minutes in, in a dramatically well-timed flashback to the day ofAlice's abduction, that we are given the emotional context for the mother'sbackseat role. Then Luisa was the frantic one, Mario the calming influence; butwhereas she has become paralysed by grief and loss, he has thrown himself intothe search, setting up video cameras on balconies and rooftops around Lisbon,handing out flyers with photos of Alice, and repeating each day, insuperstitious detail, his movements on the day she disappeared. In its focus onthe aftermath of tragedy - and its effect on a happily-married couple - Alicerecalls Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room; but it offers even feweranswers, even less dramatic catharsis.
Thedaughter's name is not entirely devoid of symbolic value - we're reminded ofthe fictional Alice's fall down the rabbit hole, and the film closes with aquotation from Lewis Carroll - but the idea of slipping accidentally into aparallel universe seems to apply more to Mario himself than his lost child.
Martinstraces Mario's efforts to keep a handle on reality as he becomes more and morelost in the 'playback' world of the fast-forward street scenes he watchesobsessively, at home or with the help of a couple of friends who work in CCTVmonitoring centres.
Furtherdislocations of reality are suggested by making Mario a theatre actor - andit's with a sense of real admiration, but increasing trepidation, that we watchthis ravaged ghost of a man getting back into character for the comedy heperforms every night.
Thecity of the film is not a postcard Lisbon but an alienating place in which lostsouls circulate like random atoms - in feel, and in visual style, it hassomething of the 'world out of balance' of Godfrey Reggio's eco-apocalypticvision Koyaanisqatsi. But it is even more airless; ironically, prettymuch the only long shots in the film are the sped-up footage of people instation concourses and road crossings that Mario watches on his bank of 11monitors.
RobertoPerpignani's music is spare but effective, with a solo piano melody shadinginto more sombre chords as the film progresses.
Thoughthe pacing is apparently slow, the film has a solid dramatic backbone, tracingan arc from despair to hope and back again.
Butit's not, in the end, a depressing experience. There are some wordless scenesof real force that suggest the depths of human resilience: one set in aswimming pool, where elderly learner-swimmers take it in turns to support eachothers' floating bodies; another the on-stage hug his co-star gives Mario whenhe finally breaks down in mid-performance.