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May 14 - May 24

Cesar Monteiro, Poet-Provocateur

João César Monteiro (1939-2003) remains among the most indelible and unusual figures in the history of Portuguese cinema, a visionary and profoundly eccentric filmmaker whose unique contribution to postwar European film is only gradually being recognized today. A cosmopolite imagination tethered by a provincial attachment to Lisbon, a libertine with an obscurely puritanical streak, an unrelenting aesthete guided by an archaic spirit – Monteiro was a deliberately contradictory and difficult artist who obdurately resisted affiliation with any declared “school” of filmmaking. Monteiro dedicated himself instead to a mode of sublimely, and often perversely, high modernism fascinated by a rich undercurrent between the cinema and the other arts – especially poetry, painting, theater, literature and music. Like the films of his compatriot Manoel de Oliveira (b. 1908), Monteiro’s cinema was also animated by an alternately cryptic and trenchant political agenda that took frequent target at the holy trinity of Church, State and Family still firmly entrenched after the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. In such seminal early works as Paths and Silvestre, Monteiro treated obscure Portuguese myths and legends as Rosetta stones for understanding the darkest shadows of the national unconscious and suggesting the ways in which the country’s imperialist and patriarchal legacies continue to shape its citizens. In opulent late works like God’s Comedy and Come and Go, Monteiro channeled his lasting preoccupation with corporality and perverse sexuality into a sustained interrogation of individual agency and collective desire.  

Raised in a devoutly Catholic family yet an avowed atheist as an adult, in many of his late films Monteiro cast himself in the recurrent leading role of “Joao do Deus”- named for the Portuguese-born patron saint of prostitutes, the infirm and fishermen but a wholly secular figure, a perverse Buster Keaton-like dreamer drawn to young women and possessed of a patient defiance of the established social order. A curious religious logic also guided the development of Monteiro’s extraordinary visual style, which moved from the radical mise-en-scene of the early work towards an increasing austerity shaped, above all, by Monteiro’s proclaimed distrust of artificial light – which reached its apotheosis in Snow White – and his desire to capture the effulgent mystery of sunlight and its shadows.  

The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to organize and present the first U.S. retrospective of César Monteiro’s films.

Special thanks: Rita Sá Marques, Instituto Camoes Portugal; Insituto de Cine; Paulo Cunha Alves, Consul General of Portugal in Boston; Boston Portuguese Festival.

Read an interview with HFA Director Haden Guest about the series here.


Friday May 14 at 7pm

Memories of the Yellow House – A Portuguese Comedy (Recordações da casa Amarela: Uma comedia lusitana)

Directed by César Monteiro.
With João César Monteiro, Manuela De Freitas, Ruy Furtado
Portugal 1989, 35mm, color, 122 min. Portuguese with English subtitles

In his debut as his libidinous alter ego João de Deus, Monteiro stars as a meticulous and melancholy bachelor living in a rambling boarding house and feverishly obsessed with his landlady’s daughter. A ribald yet wonderfully delicate comedy, Memories of the Yellow House traces the indecisive, dangerous ripening of erotic fantasy as João’s voyeuristic rituals push him to further, unexpected extremes. The rich mellowing of Monteiro’s political address is embodied in the figure of the boarding house whose sanctimonious and narcissistic landlady is both a loose metaphor for the repressive, reactionary tendencies of postwar Portuguese society and an affectionately comic figure.

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Saturday May 15 at 7pm

Come and Go (Vai e Vem)

Directed by César Monteiro.
With João César Monteiro, Rita Pereira Marques, Joaquina Chicau
Portugal 2003, 35mm, color, 175 min. Portuguese with English subtitles

Driven by his struggle against the illness that would ultimately prove fatal, Monteiro fervently devoted himself to his deeply personal last work, a musically structured meditation on spirituality and desire in which he heroically cast himself in the lead role as an eccentric libertine drifting wide-eyed through a sun-drenched Lisbon. A consciously terminal film, Come and Go offers a poetic summation of Monteiro’s fascination with the body as the most irreverent and mysterious of temples, staging a series of playfully austere encounters between the visibly infirm and prematurely aged director and the women with whom he engages in erotic, linguistic and theological debates.

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Sunday May 16 at 7pm

Silvestre

Directed by César Monteiro.
With Maria de Madeiros, Teresa Madruga, Luís Miguel Cintra
Portugal 1981, 35mm, color, 118 min. Portuguese with English subtitles

A bewitching combinatory adaptation of the Bluebeard tale and a 15th century Portuguese fable of a damsel who disguises herself as a knight errant, Silvestre is both radically feminist and fascinated with the dark, primal logic of the paternal order. Monteiro’s earliest collaboration with producer Paulo Branco was among his first to receive international acclaim, with special attention given to Silvestre’s daring use of deliberate artifice – front-projected backgrounds, extended freeze frames, theatrical performances – to capture the fatalistic rhythm and dream logic of myth.

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Monday May 17 at 7pm

Snow White (Branca de neve)

Directed by César Monteiro.
With Maria do Cormo, Ana Brandão, Reginaldo da Cruz
Portugal 2000, 35mm, color, 75 min. Portuguese with English subtitles

Monteiro moved far away from the visual opulence defined by his earlier films with his inspired adaptation of radical Swiss writer Robert Walser’s anti-fairy tale. Carefully restricting the image track, Monteiro maintains an almost totally black screen in order to focus instead on the voices of Snow White, the Prince, the Queen and the Hunter, engaged in an extended debate about love, free will and the events leading up to the fateful attempt on the maiden’s life. Despite its visual austerity, Snow White is haunted by the arresting images with which it begins – infamous black-and-white photographs of Walser lying dead in the snow after his heart attack outside a Swiss asylum at the age of seventy-eight, a strange realization of the “death of the author” so central to postmodern literary criticism.

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Friday May 21 at 7pm

God’s Comedy  (A Comedia de Deus)

Directed by César Monteiro.
With Cláudia Teixeira, Max Monteiro, Manuela de Freitas
Portugal 1995, 35mm, color, 163 min. Portuguese with English subtitles

Among his most deliciously perverse films, God’s Comedy centers around the outlandish presence of Monteiro, once again as João de Deus, now employed as the eccentric manager of the Paradise ice cream parlor and inventor of its renown and guarded ambrosia. A collector of female pubic hair - including a precious strand from Queen Victoria - Monteiro's Joao de Deus embodies the cryptically entomological eroticism that lies at the tremulous heart of his late films. The meticulous staging of God’s Comedy underscores Monteiro’s heightened sensitivity to the occult eroticism of everyday rituals, rendering the serving and stirring of the ice cream as sacred and hauntingly sensuous ceremonies.

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Saturday May 22 at 7pm

God’s Wedding (As Bodas de Deus)

Directed by César Monteiro.
With Rita Durão, João César Monteiro, Joana Azevedo
Portugal 1998, 35mm, color, 150 min. Portuguese with English subtitles

Originally conceived as an integrated second part of a six-hour version of God’s Comedy, Monteiro’s fable of obscure crimes without punishment follows the comic and sexually explicit misadventures of João de Deus, again played with Buster Keaton-like gravity by Monteiro himself, as he finds fortune, love and spiritual redemption in unexpected places. A sumptuously beautiful film, God’s Wedding uses extreme wide-angle cinematography and a rich, naturalistic soundtrack punctuated with gorgeous musical interludes to create a wonderfully complex mise-en-scene that unfolds action in depth and delicate details of the image.

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Sunday May 23 at 7pm

Paths (Veredas)

Directed by César Monteiro.
With Margarida Gil, António Mendes, Carmen Duarte
Portugal 1978, 35mm, color, 116 min. Portuguese with English subtitles

For his feature debut Monteiro creatively borrowed from traditional Portuguese legends to craft a series of echoing, parallel tales of young couples desperately escaping cruel false fathers, each couple on the run across different regions of the country and during increasingly contemporary time periods. A lyrical and profoundly cinematographic allegory with a glisteningly sharp political edge, Paths traces a pattern of repressive authority across Portuguese history while also pointing, with cautious optimism, towards the steady presence of youthful resistance. With its stunning choreography of landscape and use of a poetic, associative structure to evoke the longue durée of mythical time, Paths anticipates Monteiro’s mid-career masterpiece Silvestre.

Monday May 24 at 7pm

The Hips of J.W. (Le Bassin de J.W.)

Directed by César Monteiro.
With Hugues Quester, Pierre Clémenti, Joana Azevedo
Portugal 1997, 35mm, color, 128 min. Portuguese with English subtitles

Among Monteiro’s most controversial and contested films, The Hips of J.W. stands as the apotheosis of Monteiro’s rigorous aesthetic and interest in abstractly theatrical modes of cinematic narration. Inspired by a dream of Serge Daney in which John Wayne strides across the North Pole, The Hips of J.W. stages a series of formally mesmerizing scenes of a theatre troupe performing and obsessively rehearsing Strindberg, with Monteiro himself as the lecherous company director bewitched by the sudden appearance of an impressive and prodigiously talented actor, played by an aging Pierre Clementi, who is gripped by a dream of the polar North.

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