An ambitiously conceived poetic folk tale filled with striking images and graced with terrific Portuguese music, vet helmer Paulo Rocha’s “The River of Gold” unfortunately fails to translate its sylvan setting and passionate menage a quatre story into an involving cinema experience. Pic won’t roll far beyond local shores.
Based on a story that Rocha drew from his experiences growing up in the Portuguese countryside, “River” is clearly a labor of love that Rocha intended to express the colors, sounds and characters of his youth. A project of passion about love, sex and murder that Rocha first began writing more than 30 years ago, the film is short on compelling dramatic moments and cinematic sparks, almost as if it existed so long in the director’s imagination that the filming process couldn’t ever convey what Rocha imagined.
Carolina (Isabel Ruth), an aging local grande dame who works at a crossing point on the titular river, marries another late-in-life character, the dredging-boat operator Antonio, played by Brazilian TV star Lima Duarte. Not long after their union, Carolina becomes intensely jealous of Antonio’s fondness for their winsome god-daughter, Joana (Joana Barcia), and insinuates herself into a relationship brewing between Joana and a mystical gypsy gold salesman, Ze of Gold, (Joao Cardoso). Soon, tempers are flaring, mystical secrets are being revealed and death is hovering over the central characters.
Joana, who appears on the surface to be an innocent, is revealed with the gypsy’s “visions,” to have murdered her previous paramour in a particularly bloody fashion. Despite the pause that might give one about conducting an affair with the fetching girl, Ze becomes drawn to her, sparking the wrath of Carolina, who has her own cap set on Ze. This turn of events sends the cuckolded Antonio to move out on Carolina and mope in a small riverside hut.
Throughout the tale, events are both foreshadowed and chronicled in song by various players in the story, Greek chorus-style. There are also lovely folk ballads courtesy of Portuguese singer Jose Mario Branco, which adds atmosphere but, lamentably, isn’t enough to bring the attenuated characters to life or alleviate the plodding narrative that is devoid of surprises.
Situations and players that might work in balladic form simply aren’t enough to fill out a film, especially one that fails to match its earthy intentions with authentic human moments.