Faith, Film, and Lots of Fado in The Portuguese Nun
by Nick Pinkerton
The Village Voice, Oct 20 2010
A French actress, Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque), arrives in Lisbon to shoot a 17th-century costume drama. She’ll star in an arty adaptation of the Lettres Portuguese, a pathetic epistolary monologue addressed from a Portuguese nun to the French officer who seduced and abandoned her.
The sensation of 1669, the letters are today identified as the invention of French pol Gabriel de Guilleragues. They’re only briefly heard from in The Portuguese Nun, but the paradox of their counterfeit origins and emotional verity are very much in line with the film and its dissolving dialectics between loves profane and sacred, self-service and spiritual charity, secular display and religious interiority, actress and nun. . . .
With much downtime from Verde’s set, Julie — Portuguese on her mother’s side and familiar with the language, but little else — explores. Her walking tour takes her through sloped streets and empty stairwells—Lisbon often seems uninhabited, in perpetual siesta. The camera detaches gently, moving with Julie, then past her, digressing to get lost in the feet of passers-by and surveying vistas in metronymic pans. An overture of limping Fado, Portugal’s dolorous national folk music, sets the pace and infuses the atmosphere. Julie is lured into an obscure cantina by the shivering strum of a Portuguese guitar, transfixed by a fadista and his band. His song is translated and subtitled, but the mournful meaning would be clear without. How long has the band been here, dressed in album-cover impeccability, waiting to be seen? The musicians are apparitions as out-of-time and unlikely as the candelabra-carrying aristocrat (Diogo Dória) Julie will befriend. Another contradiction: Green greets these Old Europe phantoms with both poker-faced irony and real reverence.
Julie also takes in a show at the Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Monte, near her hotel, where she returns night after night to watch a young nun (Ana Moreira) performing her steadfast vigil of prayer. The eventual exchange between these two actress-nuns is the film’s spiritual capstone.
Green has explained his cinematographic project with winning immodesty: “I would like to re-enchant the world.” Here, re-enchantment comes in witnessing Julie’s discovery of self in the act of discovering an unfamiliar city through its music, living faith, and genteel poverty....
A chafing awareness of art-film ghettoization runs through Nun. “The film is . . . unconventional,” Julie explains to her make-up lady, who translates: “Boring, you mean.” Green deals in essential, universal emotions — but in a cinematic vocabulary alienating to most of his potential public. As French playwright Jacques Audiberti said: “The most obscure poem is addressed to everybody.” The name of Portugal’s King Sebastian I, who disappeared on a quixotic crusade at the head of a ridiculously undersized army, recurs in the film. Perhaps Green sees a kindred spirit.