Tuesday, 26 May 2009

João Bénard da Costa (1935-2009)

I just found out that the director of the Portuguese Cinematheque (PC), João Bénard da Costa has died last Thursday. Unless you’re Portuguese, you’ll probably have never heard of him. I never met him although I saw him a few times. Once or twice he even introduced a screening I attended. But it's hard to find out any person, with perhaps one exception, who has had a more important role in exposing me to films and shaping my taste in film.

In the mid-1990s when I was discovering old films and devouring everything I could get my hands into, he had a weekly column in a newspaper my father bought. I still have saved somewhere the ones he dedicated to Laura (1944) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) and probably a few others. They all have been collected in books that I have been toying about buying for at least 10 years – maybe now I will.

And then, in 1999, I started attending the Cinematheque screenings regularly. My first film there was Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963), in a season dedicated to films that were forbidden in Portugal during the dictatorship. Each screening at the PC has an original essay written by one of the programmers or collaborators. His were the best. I have all to the screenings I have attended over the past 10 years plus a few random others I have picked along (or in one case, my brother picked for me). Some of these essays (not just his) have also collected in book format, arranged by director. This has exposed me to even more films, directors, actors, etc., as I have a considerable number of these collections. I read and reread some of the entries a lot, as I watch or revisit a film. And I still get curious about films he mentions, and I still find new things.

Reading his words, or hearing him speak about cinema, you could feel his passion for each film, including Johnny Guitar (1954), which is the most screened film at the PC, and not surprisingly, his favourite – and the one they chose show as homage.

He was not without controversy, and I didn’t always agree with him. But he helped me explore what is undoubtedly one of the great passions of my life.

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