by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
Portugese cinema has had a bit of a low profile of late (overshadowed by its Iberian neighbor Spain) but this year's New York Film Festival has a surprising number of new films from Portugal that are among the highlights of this year's film gathering.
Reaching one's 100th birthday is an accomplishment for anyone anywhere, but while most in their centenary are content to sit on the back porch reminiscing about their lives, director Manoel De Oliveira is in the trenches doing the work he loves best, helming a new film. ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND HAIR GIRL is the director's 37th feature film, in a career that began in the 1940s. He may well be the Guinness World Record holder for oldest working director, a distinction that is both impressive and mind-boggling.
For his newest film, the director has adapted a complex love story by novelist Eca de Queiroz. The central plot is a wry, moving tale of a pure if frustrated love between a young Lisbon accountant (played by the director's grandson, Ricardo Trêpa) who falls deeply under the spell of the titular fair-haired lass (comely Catarina Wallenstein) he spies fanning herself across the office courtyard. A moving evocation of passion, mystery and even battle-of-the-sexes satire, the film had its world premiere at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival.
Pedro Costa, best known for his earlier films IN VANDA'S ROOM (2000) and COLOSSAL YOUTH (2006), moves seamlessly between feature dramas and documentaries. For his NYFF entry, Costa is presenting an expansion of his celebrated documentary short, NE CHANGE RIEN, a visual homage to the French actress and chanteuse Jeanne Balibar. Using expressive black-and-white cinematography, the film offers an unusual portrait of an intuitive artist, while also featuring the actress-turned-singer's growing maturity as a belter. The highlights of the film include three song segments, including an original composition, shot in what looks like a green room; a second song written by Jean-Luc Godard; and a third song, written by Kenneth Anger, called “Torture”. Costa brings a heightened theatricality to these renderings that is intimate, expressive and memorable.
Theatricality also flourishes in TO DIE LIKE A MAN, a tragicomic story about a veteran drag performer, written and directed by Joao Pedro Rodrigues. Fado-singing, pooch-pampering trannie grows old and tries to erase his/her background as a man. She must confront competition from younger performers with a more contemporary vibe and the demands of her boyfriend that she change her sex. The film, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, is a deep and fabulously sad fable, as well as an example of lyrical, playful and unpredictable filmmaking.
From veterans to newcomers, Portugese cinema seems to be having a long overdue renaissance worth paying attention to. For more information on this year's festival, visit: www.filmlinc.com