All Your Sad Kingdoms: Portuguese Films “Serpentarius” and “Past Perfect” at the Berlinale
The colonial project has long been about controlling land to bleed its resources. Much recent Portuguese cinema wants to do the opposite: to free terrain from the oppressive weight of rigid definitions of ownership, reclaiming and reinventing place for personal histories through the regenerative magic of poetry. Two world premieres at the Berlin International Film Festival, Serpentarius (2019) by Angola-born, Lisbon-based Carlos Conceição in the Forum section and Jorge Jácome’s “Past Perfect” (2019) in Berlinale Shorts, are as playfully agile as they are politically astute in their obsession with how we can position ourselves against the past, and how to navigate our fraught returns to its outposts. Both are drenched with nostalgia for a time when emotion was more immediate, perhaps even more authentic. And both revel in an audacious, anything-goes combination of imagery, music, and formal layering gleaned across decades and continents — an understanding of legacy that regards the artist as but a brief blip in a long line of humanity, who is nevertheless profoundly invested in traces of lost moments in the present, and a wider universe teeming with objects of sadness and beauty.
Serpentarius is a quest framed by mortality and memory. It begins with a personal story, signed with the name of the director. His mother adopted a macaw with a 150-year life span, on the condition he promise to take care of it when she dies, and it’s now time for him to collect the bird, crossing the thousands of miles from his home in Europe to hers in Africa. It ends with a dedication to Conceição’s recently deceased grandmother, Palmira Ventura, accompanied by worn, sepia-toned family photographs. The director’s own heritage, then, blurs ambiguously with myth in this realm where bonds cross lifetimes and continents, and nature exhibits a resilience and magnificence that aligns it with the unlimited possibilities of magic realist fantasy.
Serpentarius is Conceição’s feature debut, though his shorts had already earned him recognition as a fresh talent of Portugal’s thriving film scene. Two of his most recent, “Goodnight, Cinderella” (2014) and “Bad Bunny” (2017), screened in Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique, and established his penchant for a baroquely maximalist cinema of fantasy-scapes, costumes, and cravings. The first re-envisaged Cinderella as a tale of the radically destabilizing power of obsession, as the crystal-encrusted high heel left behind by a fleeing beauty becomes a fetish object for a nineteenth-century prince. In the second, lust defied taboos and disrupted a family in a vivid universe of role-playing, animal masks, and creatures in night-cloaked forests. With Serpentarius, Conceição has shifted his focus from the overt erotic charge of those shorts — even though all of their visual extravagance, swooning emotion, and yearning is still there — to a more contemplative reckoning with the passage of time, familial identity, and the ties of territory.
The otherworldly beauty of the southern African landscape, in grainy textures and sunset colors, bleeds into the film’s fairytale and sci-fi components. The unnamed traveler (João Arrais) is flown into the burnished orange dunes by helicopter and, pack on back, hitches a ride. His mother used to talk of a distant kingdom that had trees with no names, fruits that were never discovered, and water so crystal clear that in wartime using submarines was impossible. Such fantastical description suggests a myth of paradise — a place outside colonial conquest and definition, resistant to the aggressions of humankind.
According to journey instructions, he must be quick to reach his destination, before the wind covers everything (a terrain then, as ephemeral as a sci-fi fortress that moves every sundown). The parrot will answer three questions only, so he must choose them wisely. It’s the type of quest in search of existential solace that is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian arthouse classic Stalker (1979), in which pilgrims venture to a room and are granted their deepest wish. Our traveler’s encounter with the macaw, which brings his mother’s presence so close, yet flaunts the bird’s mastery over time and death as a mystery unresolved, is a particularly moving, melancholy scene.
Serpentarius questions the presumptions of colonizers to arbitrarily define the world. Ethnography becomes a study in subjectivity. Villagers, who stand posed in groups before the camera, argue over the facts surrounding the sighting of a white man (some say he rose from the watery depths; others say he approached from the curve of a round world). Cinema emerges as a way of remapping and reinventing the world, in a quest that goes from A to B, but diverges into all manner of fragmentary tangents. Even aspect ratios shift as we range between archival footage of Angola’s 1975 proclamation of independence from Portugal, to fleeting excerpts from a porn flick, and a star-flecked drift through the galaxy to the orchestral melancholy of Gustav Holst. The traveler plays dress-up throughout his journey. From a colonialist ruff collar to a T-shirt with a skull on it, he riffs on symbols of conquest and mortality.
The yearning to go back to a better time, when things hurt less, underpins “Past Perfect.” Another nostalgic quest, then — though Jorge Jácome does not map and reinvent terrain so much as dig and excavate emotions and historical moments. It comes on the heels of his lauded 2017 short “Flores,” in which soldiers roam the Azores after locals are driven away by a plague of hydrangeas — part hallucinatory sci-fi vision, and part politically charged take on territory.
“Past Perfect” starts close to the present, before moving back through centuries. In subtitles divorced from any voice, as if a personal weblog, we read about a “cry party” in L.A., where strangers meet up to weep together in the Chateau Marmont to access a “retro melancholy.” In close-up, water cascades over mossy rock in a dark cave. Word, image, and sound are layered as if we are privy to several times and levels of perception simultaneously.
Subs spell out the 2014 discovery of a hypnotic track as an unspooling cassette tape floats by — suggesting this underground world just might be humanity’s collective memory or unconscious. The revelation of where the warmly melodic chant comes from (it’s the official ISIS song) is a jolt that underscores historical context’s importance, and propels us into weightier terrain of nostalgia as a political weapon. Back through the funeral procession of the assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, which kicked off World War I (“the shadow of a future world’s tragedy”), through the displayed skulls and discordant bells of a church that recall a Europe in malady, we finally come to the Cretaceous-Tertiary — when dinosaurs became extinct. “It’s difficult to translate” is a refrain. We sense that our inability to get a clear perspective on these glimpses and layers of historical debris is as much an issue of being too far out of time, as it is one of language. But in this eerie and elegant careen through catastrophe in search of an era before the pain became unbearable, the richest of poetry sustains us, even as a deluge of sadnesses washes over.