The declining years of Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning novelist Jose Saramago are a perhaps surprising source of real drama in the compelling behind-the-scenes docu “Jose and Pilar.” Helmer Miguel Goncalves followed the writer and his formidable wife, Pilar del Rio, between 2006 and 2008, and the result, which focuses on Saramago the man rather than the writer, is a witty, multilayered and often moving portrait of an odd couple in love. Surprisingly accessible docu has it all — laughter, tears, conflict and much wisdom — and deserves fest exposure at least outside producing territories, where the Saramago myth holds strongest.
Saramago was already 84 when shooting started (partly funded by Pedro Almodovar’s production company and helmer Fernando Meirelles). The timespan encompasses the writing of his final novel, “The Elephant’s Journey,” grafting elements of that journey neatly onto the writer’s own hectic life. Indeed, for a writer, Saramago seems to spend very little time writing, since he is mostly continent-hopping, delivering lectures, attending commemorations or sitting at the end of insanely long lines of people who want their books signed and often come up with bizarre requests: “Mr. Saramago, please would you draw a hippopotamus for me?”
As befitting a docu about a master of words, pic is full of perceptive one-liners — “Sometimes,” Saramago complains, “I get tired of having to appear intelligent all the time.” The film’s agreeably mischievous tone seems to reflect the writer’s character, and is encapsulated in one early shot of Saramago muttering and frowning in front of his computer screen before the camera pulls around to reveal that he’s not in fact writing, but playing Solitaire.
Though the main focus is Saramago, del Rio — the energetic, driven Spanish journalist who married him in 1988 and who comes across as his wife, agent, nurse and just about everything else — also comes under scrutiny. Docu suggests that she effectively turned a gentle, retiring wordsmith into a one-man industry and media star who didn’t take a holiday for 20 years. One telling image shows Saramago alongside Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez at a conference table, both quietly snoozing.
Goncalves’ docu is whittled down from 240 hours of footage, and its highs and lows are so carefully constructed that at times it feels like fiction, shuttling easily and with a surprising level of intimacy between Saramago the public persona and Saramago the private man. Indirectly raising some interesting metaphysical questions, it remains firmly grounded in its narrative. Musical contributions from a range of high-profile composers underpin mood through key sequences.
Thoughts of death are never far from Saramago’s mind. After he is hospitalized in 2007, he loses some of his spark and things turn melancholy: The big issues become whether he will find reconciliation with Portugal, which he left for Spain after conflicts with its conservative government, and whether he will complete “The Elephant’s Journey.” Saramago died in 2010.
“I have ideas for novels,” he says, “and Pilar has ideas for life.” The final sensation is that, although her desire to share her husband with as many people as possible may ultimately have run Saramago into the ground, it was all because he loved her and wanted it that way.