The latest movies from three of Portugal’s most prominent production houses – Ukbar’s “Sunburn,” beActive’s “Gabriel” and O Som e a Furia’s “Breeding Ground” – feature in this year’s Locarno First Look showcase, a pix-in-post strand which marks one of the biggest attractions for sales agents and distributors at Europe’s largest mid-summer film event.
They are joined by three more doc-features, like “Breeding Ground”: Terratreme’s “Campo,” “Blue Breath,” from Bando a Parte, and Entre Imagen’s “Earth.”
A prestige First Look Jury is comprised by SXSW film head Janet Pierson, San Sebastian Festival director José Luis Rebordinos, and new Vienna Film Festival director Eva Sangiorgi.
First Look also serves as an introduction to key producers, talents and trends in a national cinema, and as springboard for broader international reach.
The First Look showcase catches Portuguese cinema at a contradictory time. Abroad, for a country of just 10.2 million inhabitants, Portugal has punched far above its weight at foreign festivals, whether in the number of films selected – think Berlin 2017 – or reception for individual titles. Hailed by Variety as “one of the year’s most singular debuts” and a “winningly bizarre, genre-melding political satire,” “Diamantino,” from Portuguese-American Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, won this year’s Cannes Critics’ Week Grand Prize.
First Look also represents one attempt to take Portuguese cinema abroad to the next level. “We are very happy that some of our films are being recognized by some of the world’s main festivals. Of course, festivals are very important. But we’re also trying to ensure that through co-production we can increase distribution markets for our films, directors and producers,” said Luis Chaby Vaz, president of Portugal’s Instituto do Cinema e do Audiovisual (ICA), its state film-TV agency.
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At home, Portuguese cinema, echoing the paradox of Chilean cinema, has one of the lowest domestic shares in Western Europe: 2.6%. “We’d like the Portuguese public to recognize Portuguese talent,” Chaby Vaz commented.
This cause is not lost. Portugal does have a more mainstream industry, led by comedies and some genre films, said the Locarno Festival’s Markus Duffner, who oversees First Look.
But almost half of Portugal’s feature film output last year were documentaries, according to the Cannes Film Market’s “Focus” report. Selecting its six titles, the Festival has attempted to establish a balance between more commercial films and fest-friendly titles, and between different film types, production styles and even locations, Duffner added. Four of the six production houses represented in First Look are based out of Lisbon. Only one of the films is set there, however.
Two of First Look’s titles, at least, are a play for broad audiences.
“A golpe de sol” (Sunburn) catches four friends, all kicking 40, luxuriating by the pool at a flash country chalet during the height of summer. Suddenly, they all receive a phone call on their cell phones. 10 years after he disappeared off the map, David, the love of all their lives, and a man who has scarred them all emotionally, is back in Portugal, will arrive in a few hours.
The film is produced by Ukbar Filmes’ Pandora da Cunha Telles and Pablo Iraola, whose movies range from the auteur, small to A-fest banner titles, and crossover. mixing art and narrative drive. It is directed by Vicente Alves do O whose 2012 second feature, “Florbela,” about maudit Portuguese poet Florbela Espanca, was a breakout success at the box office and with some critics, winning best director at the Portuguese Film Academy Sophia Awards.
“We never know when the past stops by for dinner, sometimes it brings along the illusion of full redemption as summer-touched bodies come closer,” Alves do O commented.
A chamber piece shot in a chic 2:35 widescreen format, “Sunburn” packs a handsome Portuguese star cast, picks up on the sensuality of Alves do O’s past work, and is maybe, above all, an actors’ piece,
“Vicente loves to work with actors, he creates a wave of enthusiasm in the set that makes difficult timings and situations look easier,” Iraola commented.
An indefatigable partner on European co-productions, teaming on movies such as the “The Knot,” “Beat Girl” and “Collider,” as well as a pioneer of multi-platform content, breaking out with Channel 5 smash hit “Sofia’s Diary,” Nuno Bernardo, at beActive Entertainment, makes his feature film debut as a director with “Gabriel.”
It represents the most mainstream proposition in First Look. A classic story to a degree, it begins with a punishing boxing match where Gabriel, a teen from the Cape Verde isles, seems to be taking a hiding. It then cuts back to his search for his father is Lisbon, life with his aunt in its humble Olivais quarter, and enmity with Rui, a hoodlum gang member and his opponent in the boxing match.
This, said Bernardo, is a new coming of age film: “‘Gabriel’ addresses issues such as xenophobia, bullying, and immigration. Issues that are on today’s agenda,” he argued.
He added: “This whole paradigm of the European citizen, generated by migratory movements, is bringing a new reality and a new way to grow, to move from child to adult. It is this process of defining identity which is the basis of the history of the film.”
NOS Audiovisuais, Portugal’s biggest distributor, releases “Gabriel” on March 21.
“Gabriel” creates an aspirational narrative in a hostile environment. The four doc features in the First Look focus, as Duffner notes, on subjects far from the big time, offering alternative, humanistic visions of humble folk, whatever the setting.
A classic art pic producer, and the company behind Ivo M. Ferreira’s “Letters from War” and Miguel Gomes’ “Arabian Nights,” O Som e a Furia, for instance, will present “Viveiro” (“Breeding Ground”), from award-winning documentary filmmaker Pedro Filipe Marques, (“The Way We Are,” “The Room You Take”).
Due for delivery Jan. 2019, “Breeding Ground” is a Portuguese soccer documentary, not about Cristiano Ronaldo nor even the stars at the Arcozelo soccer club, just south of Oporto, where it is set, but, in an eminently humanistic move, the club’s back-up staff such as the energetic but short-fused Sao and tongue-tied Quina who spend much of the film sorting through pile upon pile of soccer kit laundry in a pea-green painted locker room as Sao drills down on the neighbors. They are caught by a static but observant camera.
“‘Breeding Ground’ blooms from the worn out grass of an old football field and flows through the green corridors where an endless taking care of clothes of all sizes brings us back the lives of its few but faithful workers,” said director Marques.
He added: “Built with only observational footage, it gives a glimpse of one of the ‘best futures’ that parents and children may dream of.”
“Campo” is produced by Terratreme Filmes’, a company created by filmmakers which backed “The Nothing Factory,” an industrial action musical that proved a standout at last year’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. Directed by Thiago Hespanha, an alum of Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra U., it frames a sometimes bucolic and often ironic essay-portrait of Portugal’s Alcochete firing range just outside Lisbon, Europe’s biggest military base, its training exercises, but also its wildlife, and farming just beyond its fences.
“I started from exploring an extreme place where war is simulated, finding real destruction, excitement and boredom,” said Hespanha. “An attempt to grasp the matter and the energy that we are made of,” “Campo” is “a film that points to the ephemerality and absurdity of our life on this planet,” he added.
Directed by Rodrigo Areias (“Hay Road,” “Corrente”), “Halito Azul” (Blue Breath), another doc feature, is based on two non-fiction books by the Portuguese writer Raúl Brandão: “The Fishermen” and “The Unknown Islands.”
It is set in the fishing village of Ribeira Quente, on the Azores isle of San Miguel, near half-way across the Atlantic, where not only old ways – a singing contest in the local bar – but fish are dying out. In his youth, his boat would fish two or three tons of mackerel in a single catch, a veteran ship hand recalls. Now he has to buy mackerel from a shop.
“My main idea was to portray the end of the days of a fishing village, now facing the end of fish in the ocean,” Areias commented.
Produced by Bando à Parte, whose co-production credits include Teddy Williams’ “The Human Surge” and Gabe Klinger’s “Porto,” “Blue Breath” is co-produced by Finland’s Ockober and Gladys Glover Films in France. Portugal’s RTP and Finland’s YLE, the countries’ public broadcasters, have acquired TV rights.
Directed by the filmmaking duo of Hiroatsu Suzuki and Rossana Torres, “Terra” (Earth) is set in the Guadiana Valley National Park in South Portugal where an man and his small team tend two large river-side charcoal kilns, shot in studied sequence shots held so long that the viewer is forced to begin to study the image. Interspersing scenes of stunning beauty – an early dusk with white and violet clouds, the film cuts away to scenes of two hunters, a shepherd munching his lunch on a crag, and a village roast. “It is hard to comment on the film, Suzuki said. It is surely, however, a record of another way of life which may be dying out.
Pictured, top to bottom, left to right: “Sunburn”; Pablo Iraola, Pandora da Cunha Telles, João Matos, Nuno Bernardo; “Breeding Ground”; “Campo”; “Blue Breath”; “Earth”; Rodrigo Areias, Hiroatsu Suzuki, Rossana Torres, Luís Urbano