“Coming and Going” marks a blazing end to the 30-year career of Portugal’s most provocative filmmaker-actor, Joao Cesar Monteiro, who died earlier this year at the age of 64. It is hard not to view this three-hour opus as an artistic testament summing up the erotic, scatological and human themes of his films as it puts an end, with an extraordinary filmic death and funeral, to the old roue character Monteiro has been playing since his 1989 “Recollections of the Yellow House.” Aimed at a very select audience of cinephiles uncowed by long meandering scenes, uninterrupted monologues and literary wit, this rather remarkable film will bring Monteiro’s long-time producer Paulo Branco more prestige than box office, in keeping with the spirit of the man.
Time is no object in Monteiro’s films, and the stretched-out scenes present the greatest obstacle to enjoyment for the casual viewer.
Incarnating himself as another elderly dandy obsessed with young girls’ private parts, Monteiro plays Joao Vuvu, a widower whose only son is in prison for armed robbery and murder. His solitary existence unfolds between the park, a bus, and his airy apartment. But his large book collection requires a cleaning woman to do the dusting. Responding to his ad are a series of charming young ladies, none resembling a housekeeper, but all of whom keep Joao Vuvu amused for a while. They humor the old man’s sexual fantasies, and recount quite a few of their own.
Included in his constant witty chatter are all sorts of historical judgments (“Acts of barbarity always precede the fall of empires”), though it’s impossible to extract a coherent political viewpoint from them. His son (Miguel Borges), who finally gets out of prison, insists he’s always been a reactionary — as well as an artist who transforms everyone around him into an art object. When Joao Vuvu learns the young man has donated all his ill-gotten gains to “a cultural foundation,” he has no more use for him, either.
A master of surreal visual comedy, as an actor Monteiro gives one the feeling of watching a great performer at his deadpan best. The most outrageous episode relates the circumstances leading up to Joao Vuvu’s death, when he is raped in his bed by a mysterious figure with a giant phallus. They patch him together again in the hospital, but after a quickie with the nurse he leaves against doctor’s orders. He is in the next scene at his own funeral as a ghost, scandalizing the priest and mourners. Final image is simply a full-screen close-up of one incredibly blue eye, demanding that the viewer make the final interpretation.
Music plays a large part in the film. Among film’s brilliant set pieces is a sequence in which Joao Vuvu sits in the park watching a girl circle around him on a bike, to the accompaniment of a full-flown opera score. As the music climaxes he is able to stand it no more, and runs off after her like a satyr. In another tour-de-force scene that looks improvised, he recounts an endless story-poem about erotic and other adventures to a policewoman while cranking sound out of a bizarre instrument.
A notable preference for fixed-frame camerawork (sometimes framed by a proscenium arch, always straight on) gives the film the simplicity of good silent comedy. D.p. Mario Barroso’s graceful lighting accents Jose Manuel Castanheira’s elegant, spare sets.