A quiet film that slowly takes hold as its central character, a Portuguese cleaning woman residing in France, assumes the proportions of a heroine of Greek tragedy, “Get a Life” is one of stage and film helmer Joao Canijo’s (“Three Less Me”) most rounded works for cinema. The English title is misleadingly facetious for this somber drama, filmed in the barely lit, unreal colors of modern Portuguese cinema, about a woman who loses her son. It will take a discerning distrib to find the right niche for it, targeting the most sophisticated arthouse auds.
Action is set outside Paris in a housing project populated by the Portuguese working class, a community that has been in France for 30 years. Depicted as conservative Catholics who strive to preserve a tradition that no longer holds sway in contemporary, post-dictatorship Portugal, they are not unlike some Italo-American communities. The world of Cidalia (Rita Blanco) revolves around an apartment she shares with her husband, sons and sister and her job as a cleaning supervisor, a long bus ride away in the wee hours of the morning.
Refusing viewers the convenience of dialogue in its opening scenes, pic lets audiences grab what meaning they may from the unsteady handheld camerawork and swiftly intercut scenes. A teenager is killed in a shootout, but only much later is it clear that he was Cidalia’s son. Internalizing her grief, half-mad with silent mourning, she decides to picket the police station with a petition to learn the truth about his death. All they can tell her is that it wasn’t a police bullet that killed him.
Her struggle to break the law of silence and bring change to the community makes her a kind of latter-day Antigone. The attention that she draws to herself begins to make the old-time immigrants uneasy. They tell her they are all guests in France and mustn’t make waves. Her friends begin to avoid her, the men put pressure on her husband, someone firebombs their apartment. Cidalia plunges into her very depths, ignoring everything except an interior drive to know who killed her son. Even that is not enough; when the murderer mockingly confesses to her, she is still filled with impotent rage.
Though its subtlety may limit its drawing power, the film is admirable in knocking down all the stereotypes that are sometimes so helpful to comprehension. Cidalia is a cleaning woman that Ken Loach never dreamed of, because her identity never depends on what she does for a living. Her debt-ridden husband (Adriano Luz) never stops loving her, no matter what a spot she puts him in with the macho community. Nor does his love and support solve anything, because Cidalia’s drama goes beyond psychological remedies. Ironically, the young hoodlums who peddle drugs are the ones who understand her best.
With her tragic, unmistakably Portuguese face, her unpredictable behavior and sudden bursts of sensuality, Blanco creates a complex portrait of a wounded woman struggling within and against her society. Her sister Celestina (Teresa Madruga) accuses her, with some justification, of caring for no one but herself and making them all pay for what she has done, but the film is on Cidalia’s side.
Pic is strongly characterized by Mario Castanheira’s underlit, close-up nighttime cinematography, Joao Braz’s cutting, which presents the characters in glancing, offhand bits and pieces, and Alexandre Soares’ confident score.