This subdued Portugeuse drama focuses on an abandoned country estate and its housekeeper
Dir: Joao Miller Guerra, Filipa Reis. Portugal, France, Italy. 2023. 119mins
The heirs and owners of a large country house in the north of Portugal stopped visiting the building long ago. But Emilia (Fátima Soares), the peppery housekeeper who has dedicated her life to the absent family and their property, is not about to let standards drop. Emilia’s iron will might be sufficient to enforce order on the nick-nacks and ornaments, but it is not quite strong enough to stave off her own physical decline. And so Ana (Carla Maciel), the browbeaten maid, must put her plans on hold, in order to care for both the building and its decrepit caretaker. It’s a subdued and rather airless second fiction feature from Joao Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis, a film that embraces the mundane rhythms of domestic service as a means to interrogate the end of an era, but which is too passive in its storytelling to drive its point home.
Too passive in its storytelling to drive its point home
The picture’s affectless, frequently inert tone is a stark contrast to that of the directors’ previous feature film, Djon Africa, a boisterous, boozy quest for identity that followed a Portuguese Rastafarian to Cape Verde, via numerous bars. The appeal of that film lay in the affable charisma of the central character, played by a non-professional actor who the directors met through a previous documentary project. In Légua, the most forceful personality belongs to the irascible Emilia. Still, since she declines to a state of near catatonia in the second half of the picture, the film’s momentum slows along with her. Légua could possibly find further interest on the festival circuitt.
Emilia prides herself on having the final word on the running of the house. “It has to be done correctly, and that’s that,” she snaps at the stoic Ana. She’s talking specifically about the fastidiously layered bed linen, each counterpane labelled and paired with a particular bed. But she could be referring to any one of countless pieces of household lore – the dogs, for example, must be fed on stew rather than kibble. The tablecloth must be of the correct size for the table. The family photographs are arranged at a precise angle on the mantelpiece.
Ana’s mind is elsewhere. She plans to escape the house and relocate to France where her husband works as a labourer. But with its walls bowing under the weight of tradition and its expectant, empty rooms always ready for visitors who never arrive, the house is not an easy place to leave. When it becomes clear that Emilia is gravely unwell, Ana’s sense of duty anchors her to her job and to the testy relationship with Emilia. Meanwhile, Ana’s teenage daughter Monica (Vitoria Nogueira da Silva) kicks against the sleepy rural community; dreaming of back-to-back parties and a life in Porto.
Music is used to emphasise the divisions between characters and their worlds. The landscape, a sweeping valley, knotted with vines, gets its own musical motif, a pensive, nostalgic twinkle of woodwind and harp. Ana, meanwhile, favours catchy toe-tapping Portuguese pop, songs that meet with Emilia’s thunderous disapproval. And Monica opts for the kind of pounding trance techno that drowns out questions about the future.
It’s not overtly stressed – nothing is in this film – but there’s a sense of a cyclical continuity in this corner of Portugal. As Emilia’s angular personality is hollowed out by her illness, so Ana takes on the role of guardian to the house, repelling the real estate agent who hovers, toothily, at the gate. And there are punctuating shots of nature throughout the film, suggesting that the end of the era may also be a rebirth.
Production company: Uma Pedra no Sapato
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Producers: Rachel Daisy Ellis, Filipa Reis
Screenplay: Joao Miller Guerra, Filipa Reis, Sara Morais, José Filipe Costa, Letícia Simoes
Cinematography: Vasco Viana
Editing: Luísa Homem
Production design: Marco Ascanio Viarigi
Music: Ricardo Jacinto, Hypogeo
Main Cast: Carla Maciel, Fátima Soares, Vitória Nogueira da Silva, Sara Machado, Paulo Calatré, Manuel Mozos