The suffocating effect of years behind bars is only partially felt in Joao Trabulo’s elegantly shot docu-fiction “No Company.” Too meticulously composed and devised to show the dirt under its nails, this study of three inmates of various ages, stuck in northern Portugal’s Ferreira prison, aims to convey the absurdity and melancholy of prison life while blurring the line between spontaneously captured reality and scripted staging. Cablers in select Euro and Portuguese-speaking markets may spark interest in a film that will fly under the festival radar.
From the opening image of inmate Marcos Ernesto leaning back against a wall in the prison’s courtyard and looking for all the world like a young Montgomery Clift, pic announces itself as an objet d’art that will be more about how prison is a sphere of wasted time than a place of violence or petty grievances. (The shot itself, low-angled and cosmic, is one that could be easily mistaken as one by Trabulo’s countryman Pedro Costa.)
Early scenes show Marcos working out, inmates air-conducting Vivaldi and others discussing the meaning of a poem about eels. At this point, it’s clear “No Company” means to confound expectations of what a prison movie is supposed to be; it’s also unclear whether the action is being captured as it actually happened or being arranged for our benefit.
Unfortunately, whatever interest this generates soon wears thin due to mishandled pacing and a tendency to let scenes or shots overstay their welcome. At one point, Marcos waits for a tattoo to be applied by inmate pal Paulo Gaspar, shown endlessly fiddling with his needle and tools as the scene dissipates into nothingness.
The film manages to partially bring Gaspar’s character to light. At one point, he says he feels like part of a herd of cattle; at another, he explains he feels free only when he lies in his bunk bed.
Fellow inmate Joao Larana seems to have the best post-prison prospects as a fisherman, but a brilliant closing sequence — easily the film’s most compelling and ironic — observes him working on a massive cargo ship, in an environment seemingly every bit as stifling as prision.
Miguel Carvalho’s cinematography — which scored a prize at pic’s Indie Lisboa premiere — is so resplendent and painterly that it lends the misleading impression that the film is entirely staged. To Trips’ effective, droning score amps up the docu’s overall “movie” feeling, which may perturb nonfiction purists.