If a particularly enterprising Portuguese amateur theater group took it upon themselves to stage Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” only to freshen things up by making it a black-box musical, the result wouldn’t be a million miles from “Technoboss,” the latest from cultivated oddball auteur João Nicolau. Anyone who takes that statement as a compliment, then, is squarely in the demographic for this traveling-marketer road movie: very much a mileage-may-vary proposition, even as the protagonist’s own odometer ticks languidly along. Others may find Nicolau’s blend of doleful deadpan, perky showmanship and existential panic — call it Carpool Karaoke as hosted by Larry David and Aki Kaurismaki — too preciously absurd to stomach.
Either way, at 112 minutes, “Technoboss” is probably too much of a weird thing. With some strict tightening up, the film’s somewhat repetitive ramshackle charms could be more easily hawked on its own festival sales route — which began with a surprising slot in Locarno’s main competition. Less brazen programmers may find room for it in more experimental, cult-inviting sidebars, but wherever “Technoboss” screens, it’s unlikely to be mistaken for anything else on the bill. For Nicolau, a low-key iconoclast whose shorts have earned him Cannes laurels, it’s a statement of auteurist purpose (or proud, playful purposelessness?) that may overshadow his previous features.
At any rate, “Technoboss” faces a brighter future than its weary, gormless protagonist Luis (Miguel Lobo Antunes), a divorced sixtysomething schlub nearing the end of a four-decade career selling security systems (or, to use the wares’ frequently and joylessly repeated full name, SegurVale Integrated Systems of Access Control) that he somehow still doesn’t fully have a handle on. Mild-mannered and mostly friendless, he looks set to go out not with a bang but a whimper — though even that might be too much of a noise — until the ambiguous attentions of Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), the frizzy-haired, poker-faced receptionist at a roadside hotel he’s hired to kit out, give him something else to live for.
That potted premise, admittedly, implies a clearer, cleaner throughline than the one “Technoboss” maintains. The film’s first half, in particular, is a byway-ridden portrait of a solitary life lived simultaneously on the move and in stifling personal stasis, shambling episodically between flashes of familial discord, physical aches and pains and the death of a feline companion. This notional storytelling, meanwhile, is interspersed with passages of droll, quiet slapstick — often hinging on man-versus-machine haplessness — and spacey song breaks that run the gamut from fado-esque folk to glum death metal. “Technoboss” is slow to build into a zonked romantic comedy of sorts, as Lucinda becomes a human anchor in Luis’ foggy ennui, and the film gains some emotional focus in its later stages. We could stand to get there a little earlier.
Antunes’ manfully poker-faced performance gives the film consistency as it drifts casually between tones and degrees of (sur)realism. A septuagenarian non-pro making his acting debut — after a scattered career in law, curation and directing the Portuguese Film Institute — his artlessness is plain enough to see, but fits the halting, knowingly naive nature of Nicolau’s formal and comic stylings. (Meanwhile, Portuguese veteran Cruz brings more wry nuance and delicacy to a more stiffly conceived part, so they oddly balance each other out.)
Technically, the amusingly misnomered “Technoboss” is as much an odd, acquired taste as in all other departments, setting the grainy mumblecore-y minimalism of Mario Castanheira’s 16mm lensing against much goofy handcrafted artifice in Artur Pinheiro’s production design. This is a road trip that often passes through crudely painted paper scenery — it’s to the credit of Nicolau’s committedly skew-whiff vision that this detail seems as natural as anything else about it.