Nasty ghosts of Portugal’s past worm their way through Jose Fonseca e Costa’s “Fascination,” in which a kind of midnight world of murderous fascists invades a middle-aged exec’s blandly normal life. The movie is suffused with a mature grasp of traditional storytelling that values classical imagery, stately pace and subtle psychological intrigue — all of which steer things away from what could have been laughable in less assured hands. Absence from fests since local December opening points to an indifferent response, with the pic’s only international prospects lying in Brazil, where the adapted novel is well-known.
Vet cineaste Fonseca e Costa and fellow scripter Jose Constancio cleverly shift the location and political content of the novel by Tabajara Ruas (a previous collaborator with the helmer) from the Brazil-Uruguay border to the Portuguese-Spanish frontier. This rejiggering creates a sometimes stiff, sometimes engrossing political horror-mystery containing shades of Hitchcock, Chabrol, Francesco Rosi and compatriot Manoel de Oliveira, especially in the latter master’s obsessions with bringing Portugal’s disquieting past into the present.
Comfortably in charge of his real estate firm, Lino (Vitor Norte) receives a letter that unexpectedly informs him that he’s inherited his long-absent uncle’s massive farm-ranch estate straddling a portion of the border in southeast Portugal. Despite a somewhat unhappy home life, Lino does have moral support from son Bernardo (Jose Fidalgo) who accompanies his father to visit the property.
The deliberate action builds a gradual intensity thanks in part to the moldy, musty mood of the aging estate’s buildings. Physical space is a state of mind, and it takes only one night for Lino to begin to see ghosts roaming around. As in “Rebecca” (a distinct influence), the eerie staff adds to the weighty gloom, with caretaker Lionel (Jose Pinto) and daughter Blanca (Ana Moreira) in funereal black.
Bernardo views the place as a future tourist development, but Lino — an unreformed leftist, whose right-wing uncle fled the country after the 1974 revolution — senses more sinister vibes, and acts like a detective. Local cop Medina (Jose Eduardo), in cahoots with Lionel, has long had his eye on the spread, and now has one on Lino. Lino, in turn, has some grisly dreams about murder in the household, and is warned about how the place is haunted by his relatives, including his grandmother, who killed herself after watching her lover’s throat slit by fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
In a brief but telling shot, Fonseca e Costa shows how the international fascist symbol is actually part of the house’s architecture — like the Overlook Hotel, the place itself is a tomb — here, of the fascist living dead — and Lino is the latest victim, as he seems to become possessed by the setting and his family’s awful secrets. What follows will either seem startling or risible, depending on one’s taste for Iberian-brand horror and political history.
Resembling a younger Fernando Rey, Norte is interesting to watch, and attuned to the subdued filmmaking’s manner of creeping along until it attacks. The performances have a slightly disembodied quality — another link to Oliveira, and just weird enough to keep things on edge.
“Fascination” is superbly decked out, with Acacio de Almeida’s rich, light-sensitive lensing, Silvia Grabowski’s symbolic costumes and Antonio Pinho Vargas’ portentous music conspiring to create this mysterious domain. Portuguese title, from Ruas’ novel, is idiomatic, with English translation (in subtitles) only an approximation.