Despite an annoying insistence on making every line of dialogue feel like a monologue, “98 Octane” creates an intriguingly hermetic world that doesn’t exactly breathe new life into the road movie genre, but plays with its tropes in an interesting way. Vet helmer Fernando Lopes, one of the founders of the Portuguese New Wave, claims inspiration from Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” for this tale of a couple of strangers on the lam more from themselves and their past than the law. Though breakout chances are slim, pic could find fest appeal.
A man and a woman meet at a highway rest stop somewhere between Lisbon and Oporto and spontaneously decide to hook up and travel together. Where they’re going and where they’re coming from is never revealed, and, for the first hour, even his name is a mystery. Maria (Carla Chambel) is young and headstrong; Dinis (Lopes regular Rogerio Samora) is middle-aged and cocky, though his outward assurance can’t disguise a nervous edge.
Over the course of several days and nights (longer than it would take to drive from one end of Portugal to the other), the two explore each other’s psyche without revealing any real personal details: He’s involved in some shady business, but what he does, who he’s running away from, and why he’s got a large scar on his back are never explained.
Instead, they discuss their parents, and their painful memories in abstract ways. Maria speaks longingly of her grandmother Pilar, until finally Dinis agrees to drive to her house. The very distillation of what grandmothers are supposed to be, Pilar (Marcia Breia) is the ultimate protectress, full of the confidence and fearlessness of age. Her dreamlike home, inside and out bathed in pure warming light, becomes the nexus of emotions where Maria and Dinis can decide how to continue their journey.
As with all decent road movies, the journey inside is what counts. At the start Dinis has a diffident relationship with his past, whereas Maria knows her roots and keeps trying to return to them. Unfortunately, dialogue is occasionally cringe-worthy, and Lopes appears to have coached his actors to treat each sentence as if it’s a badminton shuttlecock slowly batted back and forth. The cast went in without a fully worked-up script, so during the 30-day shoot lines were written collaboratively at morning rehearsal sessions.
Strong thesping helps to hold it all together, but the visuals are the main draw. Richly colored and with a particularly sensitive feel for hyper-real lighting, lensing alternates between real landscape and back projection that further recalls road flicks from the past.