That Portugal’s economy has, to put it mildly, seen better times shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s read a paper or watched the news in the last eight years. This reality has also started to seep into the (very few) films that are being produced there, with Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy, which basically provides a magical storytelling cure for hard times, the most obvious and grandly conceived example. But there are other, smaller and more realistically told stories out there as well, such as that of the protagonist of Saint George (Sao Jorge), a boxer-turned-debt collector who has to fight hard to keep his wife and their son from leaving the country.
Directed by Marco Martins, who reunites with Nuno Lopes, the star of his well-received first film, Alice, this is a mostly bleak and depressing drama that offers a sobering reality check. It’s undeniably well intentioned and well made but it remains to be seen whether local audiences are ready for a film that possibly confronts them with their own day-to-day reality. Festivals such as Venice, where this premiered in the Horizons section, are likely to be more receptive.
A dark reality check.
After a brief explanation of the European troika bailout measures and the effect it had the debts of individuals, which are sold in bulk to debt collection agencies who will do anything in their power to get a return on their investment, the film opens with a series of tableau-like shots that suggest a country that has come to a complete standstill. One shot says it all, as several lamps illuminate an empty space where an advertising billboard should have been alongside an empty road. In Portugal, the image suggests, there’s nothing left to sell and no one to sell it to.
In this world lives former boxer Jorge (Lopes), who, like many like him, is unemployed. Early scenes, in a staccato rhythm, are slightly disorienting, as the brawny Jorge tries to find Susana (Mariana Nunes), who turns out to be his Brazilian wife and the mother of their mixed-race son, Nelson (David Senedo). Jorge still lives with his cantankerous old father but Susana has moved elsewhere. It’s little Nelson, maybe seven or eight, who asks Dad whether it’s true that Mom is going back to Brazil and will take him along.
Hoping to improve his situation, Jorge accepts a job as a debt collector for one of the countless agencies who’ve bought the debts of regular Portuguese people who defaulted on their loans because their wages or income was reduced or they were laid off. He accompanies two men from the agency and basically needs to look tough and menacing, which is a piece of cake for a former pugilist. But then he’s instructed to rough up a man who owns a fruit and vegetable transportation business who’s promised to pay several times but still hasn’t (one of the film’s takeaways is that a lot of people in debt aren’t unemployed at all, they just don’t make enough money to live and pay their loans).
Jorge can’t go through with it but since he’s the silent type, he doesn’t exactly spell out why he can’t do it. But the screenplay, written by Martins and Ricardo Adolfo, gives enough pointers in the right direction. Firstly, he doesn’t seem very aggressive outside the ring and secondly, he knows what it’s like not to have any money since if he didn’t have the debt collection job, he might be in the same situation as those he needs to rough up. This interesting paradox is never made explicit but hovers over the material like a ghost and clearly influences Jorge’s thinking and behavior. The fact he needs money to try and convince his wife and child to stay only makes the decision-making process more complicated.
Lopes really sells his determined but torn and silent but conflicted character and it’s partially due to his performance that the material, which is mainly familiar and occasionally borderline predictable, remains gripping. That said, the almost two-hour film would have packed even more of a punch if it had been more compact (an early flashforward to a shipyard that doesn’t really serve a purpose, are a first good candidate for removal).
Another asset is Martins’ decision to weave in small moments in which real people can be heard discussing their financial and professional problems, for example around Jorge’s father’s dinner table. These short moments add texture and veracity and suggest that Jorge’s (and his clients’) situation is far from unique. It is also one of the few things Saint George has in common with the otherwise very different Arabian Nights, which used real stories and documentary elements as part of its colorful, fiction-infused mosaic of tales.
Not only Martins’ subject matter is dark but also the film’s visual palette, with the directors’ regular cinematographer, Carlos Lopes, keeping things so murky that occasionally it is difficult to see the facial expressions of the characters and, at a few moments, to even really see what is going on. (The vivid soundscape, however, ensures that every punch lands with an audible blow.) Medium and wide shots show the squalor in which Jorge and countless others have to live, while closeups betrays the character’s growing uncertainty and desperation.
Production companies: Filmes de Tejo, Les Films de l’Apres-Midi
Cast: Nuno Lopes, Mariana Nunes, David Semedo, Jose Raposo, Jean-Pierre Martins, Ricardo Fernandes, Beatriz Batarda, Goncalo Waddington
Director: Marco Martins
Screenplay: Marco Martins, Ricardo Adolfo
Producers: Maria Joao Mayer, Francois D’Artemare
Director of photography: Carlos Lopes
Production designer: Wayne Dos Santos
Costume designer: Isabel Carmona
Editor: Mariana Gaivao
Music: Nuna Malo, Rafael Toral, Hugo Leitao
Casting: Jose Pires, Daniela Pereira
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
No rating, 112 minutes