The opening of “The Domain” is a classic mid-length widescreen shot of a solitary tree silhouetted against the sky. The camera slowly pans left to reveal a second tree, with a man hanging from a branch. This too feels fairly familiar, if disturbing, and one watches imagining that director Tiago Guedes is using such archetypal images to then play with the form, or do something unusual with the subsequent nearly three-hour running time. Instead, his sprawling family epic spanning from 1946 to 1991 largely shifts from the derivative to the banal. Designed like a meaty novel in which Portugal’s political fortunes impact a privileged family of landowners, the film embraces melodramatic tropes while generally trying to keep things emotionally controlled, resulting in a script that feels like it’s using recycled blood to stay alive.
Guedes (“Noise”) points to Westerns and some melodramas like Vincente Minnelli’s “Home From the Hill” as major influences, which demonstrably act as templates with added political overtones. Certainly the way the tug-of-war between dictatorship, revolution and capitalism batters the independent-minded Fernandes family does ground “The Domain” in Portuguese soil, yet even here the feeling of familiarity — same treatment, different country — lacks the necessary distinguishing characteristics to enable the film to play well internationally. Especially unfortunate is how the last third dispenses with that distinctive specificity and devolves into the usual drama of family secrets.
The hanged man at the opening was the scion of the Fernandes estate, but his suicide means young João (Eduardo Aguilar), forced by their father (Fernando Rodrigues) to look at his dangling sibling, is the new heir. Following the harsh paternal line, “When things finish, they finish,” the film shifts to 1973, about one year before the fall of the dictatorship. The adult João (Albano Jerónimo) is the benign proprietor of the family lands, a handsome, charismatic man exuding the confidence of power. He oversees various retainers with a nobleman’s self-assurance, including the gentry’s accustomed “droit de seigneur” with some of the women, notwithstanding the presence of his wife, Leonor (Sandra Faleiro), and their two children, Miguel (Gabriel Timóteo) and baby Teresa. Although Leonor (Sandra Faleiro) knows that the infant son of their foreman, Joaquim (Miguel Borges), is really her husband’s child with Joaquim’s wife, Rosa (Ana Vilela da Costa), these are the sorts of things one suffers in silence.
João receives a visit from the government pressuring him to support its colonial war in Angola, but only when it blackmails him by torturing his mechanic, Leonel (João Vicente), with the complicity of Leonor’s father, General Lopo Teixeira (Diogo Dória), does he sacrifice his apolitical stance to save a worker. Not long after, on the eve of the Carnation Revolution pushing out the military dictatorship, Leonor has a miscarriage, further emotionally separating husband and wife.
Eighteen years later, Miguel (João Pedro Mamede) is an angry pothead alienated from his father’s affections. Neither is he close with sister Teresa (Beatriz Brás), who’s just beginning a sexual relationship with Rosa’s son António (Rodrigo Tomás) — in other words, her own half-brother. The secrets behind this incestuous affair unfortunately become the focus of the film’s last third, set against the Fernandes family’s crumbling empire and its antiquated structure of paternalism. João remains the same, cold to his wife and son, benignly feudal with his workers and confident ruling his estate even as debts reduce the property. The banks he can manage, but not the family he’s ignored for so long.
Cigarettes and alcohol are consumed on an industrial scale by all (it’s the film’s major leitmotif), meant to symbolize everyone’s need for a crutch of some sort. It’s as consistent as the script’s predictability, from the stock figure of the communist rabble-rouser to Leonor’s snobbish mother looking for her jewels while hiding out at her son-in-law’s following the revolution. It’s not that there aren’t some good characters here: João is an appealingly flawed figure, conceived in a Robert Mitchum vein (although Jerónimo, imposing, looks more like Clint Walker). Enclosing himself in the vast property that he looks after in the manner of a personal fiefdom, he’s a man convinced of his authority, cloaked in the confidence of generations. Had the film delved more into the ways his sense of self was attacked by Portugal’s volatile political situation over the decades, “The Domain” could have been an engrossing and substantial tragedy in the mold of “The Leopard” or at least “The Best of Youth.” Instead, with the tired incest story and other family difficulties, it more resembles a slightly politicized “Dallas.”
Slow tracking shots down corridors, gentle zooms and two excellent transition shots between periods further the sense that this is prestige filmmaking, yet one wants Guedes to shake things up more, even in the direction of full-blown melodrama if it could be made to say something profound about Portuguese society or this particular unhappy family. João Lança Morais’s cinematography has an undeniable formal beauty, and the sensitivity to nature, with the soundtrack almost more reliant on gentle winds rather than the music of Arvo Pärt, Zeca Afonso and Charles Ives, is a standout feature that fits with a story centered on a working estate south of the Tagus River. But while it strives to be an intimate epic, “The Domain” struggles to connect the audience with its characters enough for us to share in their emotional trajectory.