Saturday, 7 September 2013

O Lugar do Morto (1984)

First, a confession. Like most Portuguese persons I know, I don't watch many Portuguese films. My reasons are many - ackward dialogues, often wooden performances, poor availability (good luck in finding some titles...), terrible sound quality, and an industry that by large makes films more for its own pleasure than for a wider audience. A wider reason is the small market. Some Portuguese films are highly regarded by critics and festivals, but fail miserably to get bums on seats. There are of course exceptions. In the 1980s, one of these exceptions was "O Lugar do Morto" which for nearly a decade held the record for tickets sold. At the time it came out, the film also caused some scandal (which I am sure it didn't harm the box-office). For mid-1980s Portugal, the film dared to show two sex scenes (very tame even by 1984's international standards) and imply abortion (which was illegal then).

The film starts with a twice-divorced journalist, after a frustrating night with his lover, going to spend the last few hours before work asleep by the coast in his car. However, once there, a woman enters his car after a discussion with her male companion (we will never know the full nature of their relationship) and asks the journalist to take her away. He does so, she changes her mind, and when they return the man has killed himself. She runs away.

What follows is very much a cross between Hitchock and film noir. From the latter, there is an impending doom and randomness in the hero's life and his endless pursuit of this woman, who more than just a femme fatale, might easily be Death herself. From Hitchcock, there's the rhythm, the McGuffin (the dead man is really nothing else) and a scene clearly inspired by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in "North by Northwest".The title is a give away, but looses something in translation. The meaning is "death seat", the seat next to the driver. However, a literal translation could be "dead man's seat" or, and I am slightly inclined to prefer this one, "dead man's place".

I watched it recently for the first time, and for about two thirds of it, I was genuinely taken. It was one the best films I had seen in a long while. The performances were excellent (well, by large - the music critic was a noticeable disaster). Ana Zanatti, the leading lady is a famous face I grew up with, but I have no idea who the leading man (Pedro Oliveira) is or was, or what else has he done - IMDb credits him only with this, Google wasn't much more helpful and I found elsewhere he was a journalist. It is the pity, as he clearly had the talent and could have made a really good career. For the final third, I found the film dragged, the plot going on dead ends that I felt weren't necessary (the journalist's eldest son) and particularly, I found the ending incredibly unsatisfactory, although - and here's a spoiler alert - I liked the fact that I knew little more about what really had happened than at the start.

I was particularly appreciative of the fact that most of world the characters live and move is actually real Lisbon. The buildings shown are what they're supposed to be (schools, hotels, the headquarters of the criminal police). And as a particular pleasure, it allowed me revisit the Lisbon of my childhood, with orange buses, black dial phones, five or six digit phone numbers, kids' books I recognised and a few buildings that are no longer there.