Let’s Take Over the City: Paulo Rocha’s “Os Verdes Anos”
Talent Press, a section of Talents Buenos Aires, is a theoretical and practical program created for South American critics, writers, programmers, and journalists who reflect on new forms of cinema. Initiated by Berlinale Talents in collaboration with FIPRESCI and the Goethe-Institut, annual Talent Press programs and alumni network meetings are held in five cities around the world. For more details please visit http://talentpress.org/.
Mariángela Martínez Restrepo
Programmer / Talent Press TsBsAs
Latin America Film/Critic Curator
A miracle happened during the last edition of BAFICI. A nearly complete retrospective of Paulo Rocha’s cinema took place under the title of “Ruth and Rocha,” showing the work that Rocha made with the actress and dancer Isabel Ruth. This miracle was part of an ongoing series slowly unraveling the mystery of Lusitanian cinema: the Rita Azevedo Gomes retrospective a few years ago and then one dedicated to the works of Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis. Rocha was a secret that was always there, influencing contemporary Portuguese filmmakers that come to Argentina every year with their mesmerizing films. His gestures, colors, ideas (like someone floating above the earth, or a way of introducing a song) can be seen in the works of João Pedro Rodrigues, Azevedo Gomes, Pedro Costa, and more. Like those of these younger filmmakers, he does not have an easily defined style, perhaps because it is always different from film to film.
Rocha (1935-2012) moved from Porto to Lisbon to study law, which he luckily abandoned quickly. He went to France to study at the French Institute of Cinema (IDHEC), where he met Jean Renoir and worked with him on The Elusive Corporal (1962). While there, he also became obsessed with Japan, which would last a lifetime and would be the subject of multiple films. Along with his numerous short films and features, he also directed two episodes of Cinéastes de Notre Temps on Manoel de Oliveira and Shohei Imamura. In the distance between those two filmmakers, the mystery also unfolds.
Os Verdes Anos (1963) is Rocha’s first feature. Júlio, a young man from the countryside, moves, living with his uncle in Lisbon. He works in a shoe repair shop. He falls in love with Ilda, a girl also from the country, who works in an upper-class apartment as a live-in maid. It is a film about love in the city, and as such, it concerns itself with two issues. The problems of romance and the way in which the city itself makes romance unfold: the places in which the lovers run into each other by chance and the possibilities of being alone even in a public space. But also, the urban beauties that will or will not (then you have a tragedy) move them together.
In a text from Roberto Turigliatto’s 1995 book devoted to Rocha, Manoel de Oliveira wrote about the film: “His rival is not some other man that he can destroy in the blindness of passion. No. His rival is life, a mysterious trap door, like the well that the character immediately visits at the beginning of the film, and which, symbolically, entices him to throw a stone.” The young man has a big problem. He moved to a city full of a life that is already in motion, and he doesn’t know how to live. Even worse, he is surrounded by people who live life to the fullest and do it well, and this is perhaps what drives him mad.
The other characters have different experiences. Ilda is remarkably awake and curious. Her vital energy fills shots; they are characteristic of someone who wants to be everywhere at the same time to see, talk, taste, and touch it all. Rounding out the trio of players is Júlio’s uncle, who narrates the film. He is a construction worker, a dandy, and a man whose knowledge of the world comes from experience and observation. You see it in his movements too, but unlike Ilda, his actions are the ones of someone who has built a life for himself and is now enjoying every second of it. He has left his mark in Lisbon. People stop him in the street or at a bar, as he is the most pleasant man on earth. The old and the new, we see in motion in these two characters, the young woman who wants to see everything in the city and the almost middle-aged man who has changed the city itself and now has time to sit down and just be.
The uncle has the most beautiful moment in the film. On one sacred Sunday morning, he tries to elegantly rescue Júlio from work. His boss keeps him overtime for an urgent task that cannot be delayed — a classic pretext used by employers. He invites Júlio and Ilda to lunch, but first, he takes them around town to show them something. In a bar, there is a beautiful wall with a mural made of tiles. Another building has, on the ground floor, a sculpture made of concrete. The entrance of a third space is engraved with drawings in the cement around the doorframe. They admire the shapes and textures of the kind of sculptures that we call facades because they were not made by artists but workers. They are part of the building’s plans and part of the building’s themselves. Everyone believes they belong to the designer’s imagination, but they are the fruits of the uncle’s labor — the details that he was commissioned to add to every building, his manual work that creates an unforgettable sight of a wall or an entrance.
Os Verdes Anos exists in a version of Lisbon that looks brand new, as the characters walk around new buildings. Many of these belong to modern architecture, recognizable by all the rules and laws that the buildings follow. This was a type of architecture whose failure was about to be declared, not for disregarding life but for mandating it, for telling people what to do and where to go; an architecture that was allegedly detached from the artisanal part of personality here is retaken by the uncle, whose hands shape the materials we see on the walls. The details are his details, and his hands are also the hands that produced their need, as they are the hands of the migrants that leave the countryside to go to the city to transform it. Not only used radically for such planned living, but they are also the hands and fingers that left marks in the concrete walls.
This is the life that the uncle wants to teach the young, one he made for himself, which is in everything that is outside, everything that reaches the senses. A life of eating, drinking, talking, and shaping, and that goes by something that Marx himself said: “our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.” And one of the things that makes this film so strange is that such a young person directed it, as it is so mature. It seems to move with youth, but also in spite of it. The essential nature of the piece is both in the pain of a young lost Júlio, his destructive drive, and the middle-aged uncle, who can’t stop building. In this confusing clash, between young and old, between doing and destroying, a new cinema was born. And we were so lucky to watch it unfold over the course of a few weeks in Buenos Aires.
The 21st Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema held a retrospective dedicated to Paulo Rocha between April 3rd and April 14th