The Portuguese Nun (A Religiosa Portuguesa)

Portugal/France (2009) Dir. Eugène Green

Sometimes one comes watches a film where it becomes apparent quite quickly that being on the same wavelength as the director is an intrinsic factor in how much one enjoys it or gets something from it. For this writer The Portuguese Nun from French director Eugène Green is certainly one of those films.

It concerns French actress Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque) who arrives in Lisbon to film some shots for a film version of a 17th century epistle Letters Of A Portuguese Nun she is starring in. As her mother is Portuguese, Julie has only visited the country once as a child so she takes the opportunity to take in the sights. One in particular captures her imagination – that of a real life nun Sister Joana (Ana Moreira) she sees in a church where the filming is to place.

The story, as I see it, is one of longing for spiritual peace and belonging and ultimately redemption. Something in Lisbon triggered a sense of loss and melancholy in Julie as she passed by the local sights and landmarks, awakening a feeling of something missing in her life. She meets a young boy Vasco (Francisco Mozos) who is soon to be orphaned and takes a shine to him as he does to her. Later Julie spends the night with an older man she met in a restaurant (Diogo Dória) but is quick to distance herself from him the next day.

Julie repeats this later with the male co-star of her film Sebastião (Carloto Cotta) in a moment of self-referential indulgence as they re-enact the scene in which Julie’s nun sleeps with Sebastião’s soldier. Once again Julie is left unfulfilled and lets Sebastião down, much to his disappointment, finally finding the enlightenment she needs when she gets to speak to Sister Joana.

Granted I may have shared many key points of the plot necessary to understand the discussion of Julie’s plight, but obviously not all of the details which make all the difference. Green apparently doesn’t do transparent, relying on nuance, metaphor and symbolism to relay his messages, making this a film, no matter how slow and ponderous it may be, to pay close attention to.

Knowledge of the original text might be in order as well as familiarity with Sebastian I of Portugal to understand Julie’s post hook-up attitude towards Sebastião. Less necessary is a knowledge of the church as Sister Joana proffers her own theological interpretation of the Man Upstairs’ decrees, which, while pivotal for Julie, are surprisingly not a dominant factor in the story overall.

I have to confess to have not heard of Eugène Green or his works before but if The Portuguese Nun is any indicator he has a style which won’t be for everyone, unless of course this was a one off. Certainly the long takes, staccato dialogue and use of close-ups with the actors looking directly into the camera which became tiresome here would be a trademark too far if this was in all of his films.

At first I thought I was watching a parody of an arthouse film, an impression given by the above-mentioned attributes but apparently not. The delivery of the dialogue is hideously stilted with the actors all taking their turns to speak in a rigid and robotic fashion like kids in a school play. There is hardly any real flow or rhythm established and right up until the end one still doesn’t get used to it.

Then there are the close-ups of the faces with the cast staring directly into the camera. Green may be channelling Ozu in this instance but Ozu used it sparingly and the Japanese do speak deliberately in formal situations. Clearly Green is enamoured with leading lady Leonor Baldaque – of more accurately her huge eyes – as he rarely misses and opportunity to fill the screen with her face.

However beguiling she may look at the start we soon tire of seeing Baldaque’s wild stare every few shots, registering either a sinister glare or blank and soulless vacancy; as harsh as that sounds there is undeniably a story being told behind these impressive hazel peepers, it’s working what it is that is the hardship.

Green also directs his film with total rigidity, evident from more than just the dialogue. Baldaque is never seen in anything other than a stiff posture, back straight, head up, chin out while Green, playing the film-within-the-film’s director, fails to follow his own rules, slouching like the scruffy looking chap he is. Each shot is clinically set up and while the subject may be enchanting the feeling is sterile and cold.

This might be a deliberate method by Green to allow the audience to share the sense of claustrophobia Julie feels by her unfulfilled life but it doesn’t make for a dynamic viewing experience, especially when Lisbon has so much visually to offer. The sun shines regularly throughout the film yet we never feel the warmth, as though Green has somehow shut it out through his fastidious preparation.

Despite coming across like one of the Stepford Wives in her performance Leonor Baldaque is certainly an actress with a high endurance factor and has faith in Green to submit herself to his every whim. I can’t tell if it is a good or bad performance but it is a committed one. There are two scenes in which she shows signs of life behind the otherwise staid façade – one when she cries after hearing an emotional song, the other when filming as the nun, she suddenly has her epiphany.

It should be apparent by now that The Portuguese Nun is one of those films which will never garner unanimous praise and not just between the arthouse and the mainstream crowds either. If it were a little looser, shorter and less indulgent I might have seen what others found in this, otherwise Green’s film didn’t really connect with me.


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