Money makes the world go around in “Traffic,” an abstract comedy about people who find wealth, people who lose it, people who never had it and people who had it all along. Never one to follow a conventional path, Portuguese director Joao Botelho assembles an eccentric ensemble of characters and a chaotic web of occasionally intersecting stories, but loses a few too many of them along the way, in a journey through his country from south to north. Often funny but more often indecipherable, this is a difficult prospect for anything but festival play.
Botelho used a similar structure of multiple stories in his more concise 1994 feature, “Three Palm Trees.” But that film created a sense of unity through its single setting (Lisbon) and its employment of a storyteller to weave together the many unruly strands. The uneven new outing opts for a more anarchic approach , and, consequently, Botelho is less successful in keeping a firm grasp on all its various elements.
But any film that opens with the line “Jesus, get down off that dinosaur!” is not without merits, and “Traffic” gets off to a thoroughly engaging start. Jesus (Joaquim Oliveira) is a tyke vacationing off-season with his financially challenged parents (Rita Blanco, Adriano Luz) at a deserted Algarve beach resort. The kid transforms his family into millionaires overnight when he discovers a massive stash of drugs buried in the sand.
Other characters include a philandering banker who hears things (Joao Perry) and a minister who sees things (Andre Gomes); an arms-trafficking general (Mario Jacques) and his sculptress wife (Maria Emilia Correia), who specializes in Eves but wants to branch into Adams; a faded, alcoholic actress with chronic gas (Sao Jose Lapa); and two shepherd priests (Canto E Castro, Paulo Braganca) who, after literally losing their flock, decide to close up their church in the countryside , sell off their religious artifacts and hitchhike north.
Combining the surreal spirit of Bunuel with the brash humor of Almodovar, “Traffic” hits its share of high points and conjures lots of quirky interludes, such as a young priest crooning a fado to a lamb or an all-girl production of “Julius Caesar” staged for a group of politicians.
But while Botelho appears to be offering some kind of summation in a final scene in which two beggars (Jose Eduardo, Jose Pinto) recite a children’s fable in a vast rubbish dump in the far north, most audiences will be scratching their heads to fathom this rather obscure key to the director’s take on the rich and nouveau riche, power and poverty.
The lack of more concrete links between the stories gives the film a problematic, halting rhythm that gradually loses steam. But its luridly colorful design and the dazzling natural light that is unique to Portuguese films make it a consistent pleasure to watch.