REVIEW – The Portuguese Nun (2009)

FilmJuice have my review of Eugene Green’s art house drama The Portuguese Nun.

Set in the backstreets of Lisbon, The Portuguese Nun tells the story of a French actress who plays the part of a Portuguese nun in a historical drama. Left mostly to her own devices by a director who prefers shooting architecture to working with his actors, she aimlessly wanders the streets of Lisbon encountering a series of male archetypes who compel her to examine the person she has become. Hounded by self-doubt and self-loathing, the actress eventually finds redemption at the hands of a local nun who helps her to realise the similarities between her life and that of the character she plays in the film.

Beautifully shot and partly redeemed by a final confrontation that positively reeks of human desperation and beauty, The Portuguese Nun is a profoundly problematic film. The main problem is that while the film does contain some ideas and some elegant photography, these moments of beauty struggle to redeem a film that is ultimately nothing more than a boring homage to art films passed:

The first thing that strikes you about The Portuguese Nun is the eye-catching beauty of its cinematography and the purity of its visual composition. As with Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City of Sylvia and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, we spend so much time simply experiencing the city that its moods and textures come to form an integral part of the film itself. Indeed, The Portuguese Nun is probably best understood as an homage to the Portuguese director Pedro Costa whose films In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth attempt to capture the patina of life in a Portuguese city and reduce it down to some purified artistic essence. However, unlike Jarmusch and Guerin who use the interaction between their cities and their characters to tell a story and advance an idea, Costa and Green are quite content to treat their cities as ends in themselves resulting in excruciatingly boring but undeniably decorative cinematic experiences.

Though I absolutely adored both The Limits of Control and In The City of Sylvia, I genuinely struggle to see the point of the kind of films that are produced by the likes of Green and Costa. Beautiful photography and a steadfast refusal to indulge anything as proletarian as plot or characters are all very well but art house directors have been making variations on this particular theme for fifty fucking years! Frankly, there is only so many times that you can march your audience round a picturesque medieval city before people start questioning the artistic point of the excursion. When I reviewed Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth I argued that these types of films are a kind of shibboleth for cinephiles in that they are so profoundly and perversely uncommercial that they seem like nature’s remedy to the Transformers and Avatars of this world.  Unfortunately, beauty and truth do not triangulate and while the likes of Transformers are undeniably dumb as posts, it does not follow that truth and beauty will emerge simply by making the opposite decision to every choice made by Michael Bay. In order to justify lengthy run times in which nothing happens, directors must have a point to make or an argument to advance and it is increasingly clear to me that the likes of Green and Costa propose neither. Self-indulgent, pompous and not particularly intellectually engaging, these films are a toxic perversion of the techniques that go into true art house filmmaking. Frankly, I worry for a critical fraternity that struggles to see the very clear differences between smart films like In The City of Sylvia and ploddingly pretentious disasters like The Portuguese Nun.