Omnibus pics offer perhaps the best opportunity for a layman to recognize differences in helming styles, and “Historic Centre” is an ideal example, since all four directors couldn’t be more themselves. Commissioned by the northern Portuguese city of Guimaraes as part of its European Culture Capital celebrations, the quartet of shorts shows off its makers’ cinematic personalities, with Aki Kaurismaki the most gloriously wistful, Manoel de Oliveira the funniest, Victor Erice the most socially engaged and Pedro Costa the most pretentious. With these names, the pic should travel far and wide as a festival side attraction.
Kaurismaki’s “Tavern Man” stars his muse Ilkka Koivula in a wordless role that beautifully shows off the thesp as a worthy heir to silent-film clowns (it helps that his face is a cross between Buster Keaton and a Finnish version of Larry Semon). It also proves the internationalism of the best helmers, since the man considered the quintessential Finnish director here has made a film that’s true to his style yet feels thoroughly Portuguese.
The plot is simple: A greasy-spoon cafe owner (Koivula) tries to lure clients by copying a neighboring restaurant’s hipper menu. Later, he gets dressed up for a night out, but his partner never shows. Characteristically, Kaurismaki uses strong, cool light and shadow combined with intense colors. Compositions are formal, action is deliberate and minimal, and humanity spreads to every corner of the frame with compassionate, melancholy warmth.
Not so with Pedro Costa’s “Sweet Exorcist.” Opaque, overlong and pompously righteous, the pic begins promisingly with striking images of black men in a rocky forest, lensed with an almost 3D clarity that makes each frame feel like a diorama. The scene shifts to the interior of a hospital elevator, where a man (Ventura) from Cape Verde has an interaction — “conversation” would be stretching it — with a closed-eyed soldier painted to look like a statue. The two speak elliptically of the unrest and violence during Portugal’s colonial wars of the 1960s and ’70s, but auds seeking a history lesson, let alone a narrative, should look elsewhere. As a standalone short, this might work in a gallery, but it momentarily sidetracks the omnibus, failing to engage with Guimaraes at all.
Much more satisfying is Erice’s “Broken Windows,” an elegant experiment in staged documentary in which nine former workers at a shuttered textile factory recite their memories as if participating in a screen test. The Vizela River factory, near Guimaraes, opened in 1845 and was once the second-largest textile factory in Europe before closing in 2002; its former canteen becomes the setting for moving stories by men and women who often started their working lives at age 12. Rigorously composed but deeply sympathetic, the pic provides a warts-and-all look at the hardships of working-class life in the not-too-distant past.
Rounding out the omnibus is Manoel de Oliveira’s “The Conquered Conqueror,” the shortest of the bunch and the one that best engages with Guimaraes as a city. Ricardo Trepa plays a tour guide shepherding his charges through the empty streets and squares, retelling the history of Portugal’s founding, and then stopping to focus on the statue of her first king, Afonso Henriques. Trapped in bronze, the proud ruler is nothing more than a fleeting object of interest to unfocused shutterbug holiday-makers.
Most of the films should make the host city proud, treating the locale not as a place of cold stones but as a locus of stored memories. Technically, all work equally well.