Friday, August 7, 2015


I got to this one late which is a pity as it meant I missed on something that is, for a few months at least, going to be very hard to catch up on. I came in somewhere towards the end of the first half hour. There was a tortoise race on a beach. Scheherezade from both previous volumes was being courted by a very pretty beach boy. After he declares his love she turns him down by informing him of how stupid he is and then gets courted by a dancing thief and a wind genie. Going to her father for advice she gets and accepts some unhelpful philosophy about living with it.

Then she tells another of her tales. This is done with titles rather than spoken narration and it is like no other tale we have had in the series so far.

First, we leave the sumptuous culture mash of old/new fantastic/realistic which characterised the more obvious fairy tale sequences and enter similar territory to the first volume's documentary style commentary on contemporary Portuguese life.

It's not quite as cut and dried as that but for almost the rest of the entire film we follow the lives of chaffinch fanciers, working class men who live in public housing and belie their macho exteriors with their expertise in catching and training chaffinches. They are training the birds to expand their distinctive three part song (whistle, trill and stroke) to enter them in the national chaffinch singing competition.

You might expect a filmmaker as arch and imaginative as Gomes to make something diverting of this. I did. But he resolutely keeps it over the shoulder as Scheherazade tells her silent tale in stops and starts. We meet particular contestants and learn quite a lot about trapping, keeping and training the birds. And, to be fair, we do hear a lot of stories about particular fanciers and their fortunes. There is a narrative capitulation. It feels slight but it involves a grave theme and once its few seconds of screen time passes we are almost done with only one gently amusing, if static, tale to tell.

That paragraph took less than a minute to think up and type out but I really am describing over an hour of screen time that feels like observing yeast rising. There is a break (and it feels clever) wherein a Chinese woman narrates her sorry tale of coming to Portugal and getting pregnant. We only hear her. What we see are scenes of a police strike that keep just the safe side of a massive riot. Then, when we get back to the chaffinch fanciers and their energy-draining competition (a golden-eared judge makes notes in a tent as the bird sings in a covered cage) of takes that only seem to get longer and less pointed.

There is an arc to this, as aforesaid, and its brevity and plainness leave a sense of anger at being the victim of a bathetic joke which clears a little as you recall that a screen experience like this leaves you with memories similar to those of raw experience as you pick through them and find patterns the same way. Gomes stated, in person, at the beginning of the first Volume that he can't just look at Portuguese economic straits and their effects without comment as he makes yet another whimsical movie (before he physically runs away from the task with his crew in pursuit).

I found, as I walked through the  5 degree night, feeling my mental numbness clear with the chill in the air, that this master of the real fantastical will never make another film like this, needed to make this one this way and I should really treasure its vitamins and minerals. Well, the massive chaffinch folk documentary bored me to the point to walking out (others were) but as my developing memory set it in its context and I could envisage without resentment what Gomes has done here: a little show and tell and a little show-off and smile. Ok, that'll do me. Should you see it? Yes, but if you are expecting six hours of high widescreen whimsy and magic go somewhere else: that's for other filmmakers (and this one in normal circumstances). When you see genies and beauteous maids of legend here you are seeing the same thing as the boring bits. This meal is good for you when it's salty and when it's bland.

"Dancing is like standing still, only faster."

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