A correction was made to this review on Oct. 18, 2005.
A powerful study of intense grief that reps a sure-handed and insightful feature debut by ad helmer Marco Martins, “Alice” is steeped in a despair both profound and eloquent. Enveloped in a penumbral world of pre-dawns and cloud-covered days, pic follows a father’s daily search for his missing daughter, detailing the quietly obsessive routine he follows to maintain a grip both on his sanity and his child’s memory. Pacing, learned at Manoel de Oliveira’s feet, will try some auds patience, but the affecting muted rawness and standout perfs are too beautifully modulated to keep in festival lock-up.
Stage actor Mario (Nuno Lopes) has developed a daily ritual in his search for his missing 4-year-old daughter Alice. He rises early and passes out missing-poster leaflets to Lisbon’s incoming commuters. And, just as he did on the morning of her disappearance nearly 200 days earlier, he brings the same suit to the dry cleaners each day and walks to the nursery Alice attended.
He then proceeds to collect the videotapes from the 11 surveillance cameras he’s posted in locations throughout the city. Set up in friends’ apartments and rooftops, shops and the airport, these cameras are positioned in strategic locales in the hope they will one day catch a glimpse of Mario’s daughter.
In the evening, Mario performs in a play, and, at night, he watches the tapes, displayed on a bank of video monitors, scanning the fast-forwarded images for any child resembling Alice.
Mario’s wife Luisa (Beatriz Batarda) hasn’t developed a routine like his. At pic’s start she’s a barely glimpsed presence in the darkened bedroom, but about halfway through helmer Martins seamlessly jumps back to the night of Alice’s disappearance, when Luisa’s shock turns to an understandable hysteria.
As in Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room,” Martins is interested in how people cope with a tragedy too profound to process, but he’s working on a much more intimate, at times claustrophobic scale. There are other characters in “Alice,” people who try to help, but Mario is a kind of semi-blinded wanderer.
Lopes manages to combine a sense of intense focus with complete exhaustion. His Mario is never less than heart wrenching as he passes through each stage of his obsession. Always the pic’s focus, Lopes makes palpable the structured, controlled despair, so painfully contrasted with Batarda’s fine rendering of Luisa’s dark hysteria.
Together with d.p. Carlos Lopes, helmer Martins steeps his film in sunless images that contribute to a feeling of days and nights running together, each one a repetition of the next. Early scenes are lensed with almost exclusively tight shots, never revealing as much as the eye desires.
With beautiful understatement, Bernard Sassetti’s music lingers in conjunction with pic’s general mood of quiet desolation.