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Rita Azevedo Gomes’s The Portuguese Woman is elegant, mysterious, implacably distant slow cinema, beautiful but opaque, composed on the stately level of the court masque, and with a delicate, if not precisely subtle, flavour of eroticism. I found myself utterly absorbed – more so because I went away and read the 1924 short story on which it’s based, by the Austrian author Robert Musil, known for his monumental and unfinished The Man Without Qualities.
In the early 16th century, an unnamed Portuguese noblewoman (played by newcomer Clara Riedenstein) has married the aristocratic Lord von Ketten (Marcello Urgheghe). When he goes to war in Italy, she stays behind with her retinue and ladies-in-waiting, waiting for his return for over a decade in a becalmed state of torpor and inscrutable discontent. When her husband finally does come back, exhausted, unwell, disillusioned with war’s supposed glories and embittered after peace negotiations with his enemy, the Bishop of Trent (Alexandre Alves Costa), he conceives a jealous dislike of his wife’s attractive young cousin, Pero Lobato (João Vicente), who has come to visit. There is a haggard choric figure of an old woman, played by the veteran German star and Fassbinder veteran Ingrid Caven.
Everything about the movie is uncompromisingly andante: there are static shots, wonderfully composed painterly tableaux, with highly wrought details and focal points to be noticed in various corners of the frame, perhaps inspired by Velásquez (although at other times cinematographer Acácio de Almeida has apparently taken something from Millais’ Ophelia or Leonardo’s Lady With an Ermine).
The Portuguese woman capriciously decides to make a pet of a feral cat and also a wolf cub that becomes full-grown under her care, a development replete with heraldic significance – and she is enraged when her husband takes against the animal. There is something amazingly unworldly in this film: it is a challenge, certainly, and needs an investment of attention, but there is a gorgeous refinement and intelligence to it.
• The Portuguese Woman is available on Mubi from 20 July.
Source: The Guardian
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