Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Night Train to Lisbon, a House of Spirits and a Sailor between Chile and Portugal

As a Portuguese arriving to live in Chile seven years ago my first thoughts were entwined on the coincidences between both countries’ cultural, political and cinematic experiences. My embracing of this country was entirely unplanned and the result of a twist of fate (or “fado” as the Portuguese call it). As I was completing my studies in the United States, the economic crisis in Europe gave me the idea of looking at another continent for prospects. I and my Chilean supervisor thought “why not Chile” and a life changing project was born to answer such question. I had never been in Chile before, had met only three Chileans in my whole life until that moment, and I realized with some mixed feelings of anxiety and expectation that Chile is the farthest country on Earth from Portugal. I had no clue then that I would stay so many years in Chile, but afterwards each single second here inspired me with passion, serenity and an eagerness to embrace a new life born equally out of destiny, random chance and my deep inner self.

My airborne thoughts in that cloudy grey May morning as the plane descended over Santiago turned to the subtle links between Chile and my birth country. Both countries lie at the extremes of their continents, giving the feeling of lands at the end of the world, where poets contemplate the dark foamy sea and drown their thoughts in the sound of the waves. Interestingly, there is a very famous Chilean novelist, Luis Sepúlveda, who lives in Spain and sells millions of books in Portugal and Spain, and yet is completely unknown in Chile. Thinking about this I wondered if I too could be more successful in Chile than in Portugal. Want to listen to Fado/Destiny? My favorite place as a child - 8 to 12 years old - was the big supermarket Jumbo in Lisbon! I didn't know then it was a Chilean supermarket, but I was in love with its design, the elephant logo and its books section. One could say I loved Chilean grocery before I knew it.

Most strikingly, Chilean and Portuguese political culture were joined together four decades ago. In the early 1970s a Portuguese underground political movement flourished even under a brutal repression of a nationalistic right-wing regime. Two consecutive generations of Portuguese reached adulthood without a local model of what a democracy and its leaders should be. The oldest of the repressed generations had a cynical view that nothing would ever change, but the youngest – among them my parents and cousins – saw the world as a blank state where all kinds of communities and ideas were possible. Young people were fragmented in different political parties and groups. Many such groups sought inspiration from other political movements in the wider world, including Latin America. Chile was taken by some as a cultural model with songs borrowed from Víctor Jara, poems from Neruda and fiery speeches from Salvador Allende. Brigada Víctor Jara is of the most famous Portuguese folk music groups of the last 40 years and was directly inspired by Víctor Jara’s brave resistance and death. In 1973/74 Chile changed from a democratic regime to a dictatorship, while Portugal became a free nation, although one confused by the many possibilities offered by freedom. The Portuguese had to learn that not all free choices are good and that beautiful pipe dreams only flourish if sustained by hard reality.

However, even more surprising is that both countries are symbiotically linked through the cinema. Chilean director Raoul Ruiz used Lisbon to create Valparaiso in his movies, since his long political exile blocked him from filming in Chile. One example is the movie Three Crowns of the Sailor, where a drunken sailor in a ghostly ship travels from Valparaiso to other ports, living strange fantasies. Also, Ruiz' last movie "Mysteries of Lisbon" adapts a Portuguese novel by Camilo de Castelo Branco and again shows how much Portuguese culture impacts Chilean art.

Another movie on my mind that day was the celebrated adaptation of House of Spirits from Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, which was filmed in Lisbon and Alentejo in Portugal. Two generations of a Chilean family: one lives in a democracy plagued by wealth and land inequality, the second is crushed by a military coup. More recently, a movie by the same director Bille August adapts the novel “A Night Train to Lisbon” by Swiss author Pascal Mercier. The movie is about a Swiss literature professor who travels to Lisbon in search of a little known Portuguese writer and ends up finding how the Portuguese dictatorship broke his friendships apart. One of the major scenes in “A night train to Lisbon” shows a Portuguese communist activist, João Eça, being captured by the secret police at his home. João is forced to play the piano in front of his torturers, only to have his hands broken and his fingers smashed. I cannot remember such an incident being reported against a Portuguese musician during the dictatorship times, but it is quite possible that Bille August and Pascal Mercier may have been inspired by a similar incident which happened to Víctor Jara, who was forced to play and sing by his torturers after having his hands and finger nails broken. Again Portugal and Chile are united through dark political events and their experiences were mixed to form a great novel and cinematic piece.

Now Bille August is perhaps the only director who can claim to have made movies about both the Chilean and the Portuguese dictatorships, with both movies being filmed in Portugal. And both works feature a stellar acting by Jeremy Irons! Let’s hope Bille August and Jeremy Irons return to Portugal and film a third movie as passionate, enthralling and literary as these.

No comments:

Post a Comment