Portuguese director Susana Nobre’s first scripted fiction film, “Cidade Rabat,” is about a producer who grew up in the Cidade Rabat neighborhood in Lisbon, and who suddenly has to come to terms with the death of her mother.
The title is partly inspired by her own life, since she grew up in the “Cidade Rabat” district of Benfica in Lisbon. Much of the action takes place in the nearby mixed-race neighborhood, Reboleira. Nobre describes the film as a “melancholic comedy about a woman who is about to turn 40, whose life enters a period of chaos when she loses her mother and suddenly lives a second adolescence.”
There is a nostalgic feel to the film, of a district that was once brimming with energy but is now crumbling. This nostalgia is mixed with hope for a new life, embodied by the main character Helena’s 12-year old daughter, for which Nobre cast her own daughter.
Raquel Castro plays Helena in her first screen role. Her performance marks a strong connection to the director. At one point we see Helena filming herself in a mirror, simultaneously staring at herself and the audience. Nobre cast several friends in secondary roles, reinforcing the intimate feel of the movie. The film has a hybrid fiction/documentary feel which has been a hallmark of Nobre’s recent work.
Nobre previously attended Berlin in 2021 for “Jack’s Ride,” but her latest film is the first time that she has directed a film with a complete screenplay, completed prior to lensing.
The helmer is one of the founding members of renowned Portuguese production house Terratreme, one of Portugal’s leading producers of films on the international festival circuit.
Variety talked to Nobre prior to the world premiere of “Cidade Rabat” at the Berlinale in Forum.
How much of the film is based on your own personal experience?
There is an autobiographical dimension to the film, to the extent that I have previously filmed in the Reboleira neighborhood shown in the film, and also grew up in the Cidade Rabat neighborhood. But there are key differences, including the fact that the fictional portrayal of the mother’s death is not something I have experienced. When I see Raquel playing the role of Helena I don’t see myself. The film took on a life of its own.
Raquel Castro brings a special intensity to her debut role.
I still don’t understand how she managed to bring such force to the role. It was a very dynamic process. She never crystallized the character. She brought special nuances that I hadn’t imagined in the script.
Why do you view this as your first complete fiction project?
Because it was my first film with a complete screenplay finished prior to starting production. With “Jack’s Drive,” I shot much of the material without a pre-defined script which meant that it gained a second life in the editing room. This was very stimulating but also a huge risk, and sometimes a bit traumatic. For this project I wanted to work more intensely on the script itself. At various moments I did readings with a friend of mine who is also a director, to get feedback.
How did the project evolve during the shoot?
Raquel brought many nuances to Helena’s character and saw many things that I hadn’t realized were implicit in the script and she also brought new approaches. I had written Helena as being more heroic, for example, challenging the police when they are racially abusive. Raquel transformed the role into someone who comes across as being more vulnerable, weaker, and more silent. At first, she appears to be passive rather than active. I wanted to show that she is fighting for the right to have a contemplative life, and not just be a cog in the production machine. In that sense I think the film offers a feminist vision.
Could you explain what you mean by that – a film which offers a feminist vision?
That is obviously linked to the question of whether or not it makes sense to talk about a feminine cinema. I really like Virginia Woolf’s perspective when she talks about women writers. I think this also applies to cinema – the idea that a woman shouldn’t erase the place where she writes from, from which she observes the world. Virginia Woolf never wanted to erase the place in the living room, or the kitchen, where she was writing. I find it much more interesting for us, as women directors, to try to refine this sense of description – of knowing how to write about the world from our own viewpoint, rather than using characters to create an ideological discourse, that we defend ideologically. That would cause the work to lose its integrity. I agree with Woolf in that sense, that as women we should talk about places occupied by women which can be places of greater truth if we know how to document them.
The Reboleira neighborhood shown in the film is central….
When I wrote the screenplay, I never thought that the film would have a racial dimension, but I was a bit naive. I never thought about the racial issue while I was writing it. Part of the inspiration for the film came from working as the producer on a film directed by the Swiss-Portuguese director, Basil da Cunha, set in the Reboleira neighborhood in Lisbon. I was responsible for hiring the team and with more administrative procedures. I didn’t experience the neighborhood as intensely as Basil, but I wanted to explore this universe in my film. It’s very different from the Cidade Rabat neighborhood, the location of the mother’s house at the beginning of the film. They’re fairly close geographically, but far apart socially. When Helena goes to the Reboleira neighborhood to do community service it’s as if she gains a new family.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m still at the very early stage. I’d like to work with Raquel again and it will be another film with a completed script. Probably with a smaller crew. I see “Cidade Rabat” as the first part of a trilogy, or even of a quadrilogy. My next film will be about a woman after a separation, coming to terms with the fact that her planned existence has suddenly collapsed and she has to begin a new life. I want to explore the active role that can be associated to this process. She ends up fighting for her time and once again for her right to contemplation. It will also revolve around conversations, which in a way comment on the situation the character is facing. But it’s still too early to say much more about the project.