To Accept the Unacceptable: Reflections on Three Films by Teresa Villaverde
by Ela Bittencourt
Senses of Cinema, dez 2012
Asked at the 35th Mostra Internacional de Cinema in São Paulo about her role as a filmmaker, Teresa Villaverde replied: “To accept the unacceptable.” (2) Her words referred partly to the plot of her latest film, Cisne (Swan, 2011), which she was presenting at the festival, but can serve as a useful lens through which to consider three of her most important works to date: the early Os Mutantes (The Mutants, 1998) and the later Transe (Trance, 2006) and Cisne, all of which deal with unspeakable violence.
Os Mutantes opens with a close-up of a young girl’s hair fluttering. As the air swooshes loudly, the camera slowly zooms out, to show a young girl, Andrea (Ana Moreira), flinging her hairdryer onto a table. The abrupt transition—from an extreme close-up suspended in time and space, to a full shot, set in a specific setting, in this case a trade workshop in a juvenile institution—is emblematic of how Villaverde will use jarring transitions and startling imagery to strengthen the audience’s identification with her characters, beyond the narrow confines of plot.
Andrea belongs to a group of young girls and boys—the eponymous mutantes—that include young Pedro (Alexandre Pinto), and his friend Ricardo (Nelson Varela), who, as we are later given to understand, is the father of Andrea’s baby. But it’s Andrea who most fully embodies the image of ostracized youth. After she’s put her hand through a window and suffered fainting spells, her father visits her in a hospital. But Andrea’s soul, or id, suddenly leaves her body; it floats down the hospital hallway, to the nurses’ station, steals two cigarettes, and returns to bed. In a play of images reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Andrea is two girls: Lying side by side, they observe each other. The double isn’t rationalized, and we can only surmise that Andrea imagines her double to escape the immediate reality that is beyond her control.
Villaverde doesn’t reveal Andrea’s pregnancy right away. Instead, she builds tension around Andrea’s desperate search for Ricardo, with Pedro and Ricardo’s parallel stories to fill the social landscape. In the part that deals with sexual exploitation—as will Transe—Pedro and Ricardo are cast in a German pornographic video, and taken to a remote house in the woods, where Ricardo gets his face smashed against a faucet. The violence of this early scene prefigures Ricardo’s brutal death later, as he is kicked and beaten to death in a senseless retribution for his attempted theft; even after his mask is stripped and he is revealed to be a minor. It is but one example in Villaverde’s work of how little exception is made for youth in a world dominated by apathy on one hand, and cold exploitation on the other. In one of the film’s more heavily resonant scenes Ricardo’s limp body is dragged across the floor by an unidentified killer, leaving a thick, red smear.
In an image whose violence matches Ricardo’s death, Andrea gives birth in a public bathroom, in a long, agonizing shot, during which we never see or even hear her newborn. She then hobbles to a café, and through a window watches the pantomime of her baby being rescued by strangers. For the first time, her defenses break; she mourns the baby she has given up, and her own prematurely ended childhood, but is ignored by the frantic crowd. The sequence is devastating, particularly since it follows Andrea’s visit to her parents, after her escape from the juvenile centre. In that earlier tense scene, Andrea’s mother refuses to help, alluding to her own fragility. Andrea struggles to remain composed, and kneels at her mother’s feet. Shot from above, as if she were observing herself, or perhaps would like to remember it, the domestic composition is already haunted by a sense of loss.
Villaverde first wrote the screenplay wanting to cast children from the government-run institution where she had done her research. The government thwarted her plans, perhaps fearing criticism. In reality, she shows little of the “us” versus “them” mentality, instead depicting case workers as trapped in the system as much as their protégés are, and making enough allusions to parental incarceration, alcoholism, and general apathy, to place the social “mutation” in a broader familial context (in a rare scene where a father enforces his parental authority, it’s with the purpose of taking away his child’s money to spend it on drink). Nor does she simplify her material by presenting her young subjects as mere victims. Their attraction to crime and to easy money is clear as Ricardo and Pedro lose themselves in dancing at a nightclub, and impress homeless youngsters by buying large quantities of beer. Ultimately, the term “mutants” refers as much to the society’s rejection or negligence, as to the young’s own perception of themselves as displaced outsiders (Andrea calls her fetus “a Martian” when she first sees it on a sonogram).
Villaverde’s lyricism, her gift for striking imagery, and her attentive editing and characterization, elevate her work beyond social commentary. An image, like that of Andrea’s hair blowing, returns as a leitmotif, enforcing the film’s cohesion and rhythm. Villaverde herself has remarked on this echo effect: “My connections are more poetic, more intuitive than narrative, so it’s important than one image brings another. Sometimes I like when they don’t seem connected. Later on, you may see an echo of something that you’ve seen before. It opens the film, but it opens my way of seeing as well.” (3)
At times, the images build contrasts, as is the case when Ricardo’s brutal murder is followed by a pixilated close-up of a television screen. As the camera zooms out, the blurred image becomes Ricardo’s childhood photograph, shown in a television broadcast that reports his death. A female hand, either Andrea’s or the boy’s mother’s, caresses Ricardo’s features. The gesture’s tenderness, so rare in Os Mutantes, is particularly striking after the senseless murder. At other times, an image has a metonymic force, as happens with a broken, dirty window of a sitio (a country house to which Andrea has been removed after being expelled from her regular centre). As the camera pans across a wall marred by graffiti, off-screen we hear girls whispering a long litany of female names, most likely of those who have shared their fate. The quoted lines, scribbled on the walls, speak of unrequited love. The scene is even more resonant, if we recall that earlier, after she’s given up the hope of finding Ricardo, Andrea spoke her name aloud as she scrutinized her face in a mirror. If we consider that in Villaverde’s work names have a mystical power, then perhaps Andrea is performing a symbolic exorcism, hoping that her life may change.
In Villaverde’s work, echoes travel from film to film—the importance of names is evoked again in Transe, in which Ana Moreira, who played Andrea, incarnates a young Eastern-European girl, Sonia. Seeking a better life after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Sonia works as a cleaner in a Western shop dealing in stolen car parts. A co-worker gets her into his car, under the pretext that the shop is being raided. She is taken to a remote location, blackmailed, raped, and forced into sex work. At her most vulnerable, she keeps her first name secret, like a talisman.
Two other aspects of Os Mutantes reoccur in Transe: Villaverde’s commitment to her characters, and her empathy for exploited, betrayed youth. At the same time, Villaverde resists easy classifications of good and evil, placing Sonia’s Russian handler in a specific social and economic context. As a newcomer to crime, he is being tested by his Italian partners; he can’t afford to pity Sonia, and must protect his interests and credibility instead. He also holds Sonia culpable, cynically observing that a real Russian girl would not have let her guard down in a stranger’s car, further dissociating himself from her misfortune. Handing her over to the Italians, he advises her to run away, but only if she’s quite sure she’ll succeed—a vague attempt to expiate his guilt, rather than a genuine gesture of solidarity.
In line with Villaverde’s moral vision is her aesthetic one, in which she privileges the internal life of her characters, rather than the necessities of plot. In Transe, she opens with a dreamy sequence, in which Sonia speaks in Russian to a solider or, quite possibly, his ghost. The landscape is icy-cold and desolate, with the faintest backdrop of city, but this iciness will come to symbolize tenderness and protection later, as Sonia longs for snow. As the film’s title suggests, Sonia’s experience of things often departs from reality. We follow her as our unreliable narrator, sensing that a narrative from her point of view will take us not so much further but deeper, into a kind of rabbit hole, between imagination and fact.
The beginning of Sonia’s trance has a clear enough marker. She has fallen asleep in her colleague’s car; as she dozes, a faint, blurry figure emerges from the forest. The appearance of Sonia’s handler, shot in a long take as he approaches, is the harbinger of her trance, her slow breathing contrasted with his rapid footsteps. From the moment Sonia wakes, the film becomes more imagistic and abstract. After her brief attempt to escape, she finds herself alone in the woods. As dawn breaks, the gaunt, pale Sonia, her chestnut hair disheveled, stares out at the lush spring forestation. A few tall trees begin to groan and fall, possibly cut down for timber, but Villaverde omits an explanation. She focuses instead on Sonia, who appears to be the only witness to the trees’ demise. The forest is soon silent, but Sonia’s intense gaze draws a parallel between the trees’ death, and our reading of her fate; yet it is done in such absolute stillness it avoids sentimentality. The image blurs again, and the dim figure reappears. The handler picks up Sonia and carries her back to his car.
From the moment Sonia is brought to the Italian whorehouse, the narrative pace slows down; the takes become longer, mirroring Sonia’s disintegrating sense of time. The language barrier between Sonia, her captors and her clients breaks down the narrative even further. Since no effective dialogue is possible, Sonia is reduced to silence. While some filmmakers may have been tempted to work around this linguistic difference, Villaverde welcomes it, as yet another way to stress Sonia’s isolation. Banned from language and from meaningful human contact, and immersed in a harrowing routine, Sonia retreats into a daze.
Breaking the monotony are distinct flashes of the women’s will. In the film’s most enthralling scene, a visibly drunk Italian sex worker enters the main hall where the women normally greet their customers, and prances wildly, to the sounds of Italian Euro-trash. The long take lasts for nearly the entire song; she is then forced out of the room by the proprietress. What’s startling about this scene, and indicative of how Villaverde builds tension, is how subtly, and poignantly, a distinction is drawn between the woman’s pleasure, which is suppressed, and the sex industry that commodifies and subjugates it to the men’s needs. In a similar act of revolt, we see Sonia, made up and sitting in a chair in complete stillness as lights flash around her. When she exits and then returns to her seat, she has red lipstick smeared all over her—a clownish but horrific mask.
It’s not surprising that Transe has been screened in the Festival on Human Trafficking in Poland. More than any film I’ve seen, itshows sex trafficking, and the sex industry in general, as relentlessly exploitative, but nevertheless organized according to the logic of capitalism in which goods are exchanged for cash. As Sonia clings to her captors, and attempts to starve herself, she meets with stony indifference. This is ultimately only a small dose of the cruelty meted out to her, as she is shipped to a luxurious residence, whose opulence and aura of civility seem inversely proportionate to her captors’ barbarity. Here, in the film’s most chilling sequence, Sonia suddenly converses with the solider from the film’s opening sequence. Nothing cues us in to this being a fantasy, and for a moment we may believe that Sonia has escaped to wintery Eastern Europe. What follows, however, is a vicious bestiality scene, in extreme close-up. We slowly distinguish a hound’s torso, and its rapid breathing and yelping, mingled with Sonia’s screams. If such visual discontinuity is jarring, and likely to puzzle some viewers, it is nevertheless effective in portraying Sonia’s ordeal. The memory of snow acts as her last anchor. Russian voices are heard off-screen, as the camera zooms in on the black entrance to the wooden shed where Sonia has been left. From this abyss, we are plunged into Sonia’s dreams, an idyllic projection of what her life may have been like.
In the final scene, where Sonia ends up in a dimply lit room in Portugal, she keeps asking her new captor whether she has seen him before, as if trying to reestablish her grip on reality. But the effect is even more trance-like: a dissolution of temporal perspective. Unable to draw upon the past, or project herself into the future, she is suspended in the terrifying present, for which the room is a metaphor. The last image, of Sonia spreading her pale limbs on a bed, has a stark formal beauty. A dark, opulent still life, it is all the more chilling since it depicts human flesh, whose ghastly paleness recalls martyred saints in religious paintings.
If we accept that the Russian soldier is a ghost, or a vision, it is also possible that in her last encounter with him, Sonia communes with the dead; the sequence in Portugal is an elaborate staging of her funeral, and her confused exchange with her last “captor” her initiation, or passage, into the afterlife (at least as Sonia may have imagined it). Such a reading would further frame Sonia’s suffering as a passion play.
Regardless of our interpretation, neither in Os Mutantes nor in Transe can we yet speak of actual acceptance. The characters’ agonies don’t end—except perhaps in death—and so resist a humanist reading, imposing meaning, or poeticizing pain. It is not until her latest film, Cisne, that Villaverde comes closest to capturing the idea of poetry expressed in this essay’s epigraph, as containing the good and the bad of human experience. Considered by some critics to be her most hermetic feature, Cisne can nevertheless be read as an apotheosis of the vision of art, and artists, as uniquely fit to accept life in all its painful complexity. It’s perhaps for this reason that Os Mutantes’ murky colours, and Transe’s Manichean play of light and darkness, give way to limpid Mediterranean skies. Beauty, however, is two-sided: Lisbon’s timeless settings and air may inspire happiness, but also melancholy.
Dualities are inherent to Cisne, which opens with a young boy releasing a bird into the air. Against azure skies, the image brings to mind a white dove, a peace symbol, but this cliché is immediately subverted. The bird is a partridge, and it’s being released only to be shot; we see it crumpled on the ground, fluttering in pain. This agony will later change its meaning again, as we’ll witness similar birds being de-feathered and prepared as a meal by a group of young boys, mostly immigrants, who live in an abandoned, decrepit warehouse. As in Os Mutantes, these youngsters live in abject poverty, and are invisible to the outside world. Also similarly to Os Mutantes, adults are either passive observers or absent; or they are aggressors, embodied in Cisne by a pedophile, who is also, ostensibly, the boys’ and Pablo’s guardian, and so the only law with which they come into direct contact
Social commentary, which was at the forefront of Os Mutantes, but already highly stylized in Transe, gives way in Cisne to an intimate portrait of a relationship with which Villaverde has already experimented earlier: Of an adult woman who consoles a young man or boy and becomes the object of his affection. In Os Mutantes, this relationship appears in a brief episode when, after learning of Ricardo’s brutal death, Pedro visits the house of his female caseworker. Rather than crudely Oedipal, Pedro’s attempt to seduce her is ambiguous. He is possessive, but also offers himself up, partly to compete with her newborn baby.
In Cisne, a similarly complex bond flourishes between a young man, Pablo (Miguel Nunes), and Vera (Beatriz Batarda), a successful singer who completes her tour in Lisbon, while a man with whom she has extensively corresponded and fallen in love takes up residence in her country house. Pablo, as we learn later, belongs to the group of the young outcasts. Their relationship evolves, from Vera’s original nonchalance, to her growing sense of responsibility, as she learns that Pablo is trying to meet the mother who gave him up for adoption when he was a baby, but whom he has managed to track down.
The disparity between Pablo and Vera’s worlds is immediately felt. He sees her as protected by her art and fame. Vera, however, rejects the notion of a sheltered artist, saying, “Art perhaps protects some crazy people. But I’m not crazy enough.” As in Transe, madness is an invitation to oblivion, not available to Vera, who unlike Sonia, is an insomniac, and so hyper alert. Portuguese actress Beatriz Batraga portrays Vera as confident in her artistic strengths but inexplicably haunted. Villaverde does not hint at what brings on Vera’s melancholia. Instead, she makes her fears existential: a fear of old age, and of inevitable loneliness. It is not until Pablo asks directly for Vera’s help that he stirs her out of her spleen. As Pablo, Miguel Nuns gives a credible performance, and his interaction with Batraga, which has been described as a delicate pas de deux, is the most rewarding element in the film. (4) We see Pablo idealizing Vera, but capable of judgment, as he quips that “life is not a song”—a criticism of how art, not only music, tends to trivialize suffering.
Working with non-actors produced electrifying results in Os Mutantes, but less so in Cisne. Israel Pimenta lacks spark as Vera’s lover who suffers a nervous breakdown. With less subtle handling than some of her other minor characters, Villaverde nevertheless manages to imbue the dwarf artist with whom he has an affair—and a mirror image to Vera’s perfectionism—with oracular presence. To her belongs Cisne’s key phrase: “Perfection doesn’t exist.” The phrase echoes throughout the film, as each character must learn to harness his or her duende, or life force. (5) Pablo must accept that his mother may love him for who he is; Vera must learn that life’s unpredictability need not plunge her into melancholy; and her lover must accept companionship and help. Duende, as a power forged in close proximity to death, is most prominent in the story of Pablo’s close friend: one of the young boys, who can’t stand being sexually abused, and so murders the aggressor. The murder takes place at night; the moonlight reflecting off the water illuminates the blue walls of the guardian’s house, as his blood covers the crude wall painting of a swan.
The image came from Villaverde’s reading of an ancient Greek poem, about a swan making a song with its wings. Since the poem is a fragment, the content of the song is unknown—an empty signifier. In Cisne, Villaverde extends this metaphor to the mysterious effects of suffering, and the proximity of creative and personal strength to death. (6) The swan’s silent gaze, captured in the counter shot to the boy’s bloodied face, may seem accusatory, at first; but it presages the restorative quiet that Vera and the boy will find at Vera’s country house. Having learned of the murder from Pablo and visited the crime scene, Vera not only has agreed to keep it secret, thus circumventing the law, but has also taken the boy into her care.
In the film’s final scene, as Vera dozes, her lover, recovered after what may have been a suicide attempt, chops down wood. In the counter shot, the boy looks out the window, his eyes, as we can guess, riveted on the axe striking wood. As often happens in Villaverde’s work, image and sound are multi-layered. Here they evoke the murder, the axe substituting the knife, but given the bucolic setting, they also hold a vague promise for the future. The axe is not a weapon, but a tool to prepare a fire, itself a welcome source of warmth. The boy’s face doesn’t betray any signs of pain; it remains neutral, yet alert. Like the poem’s mysterious swan song, the striking of the axe reaches our ears, but we can’t be sure what it portends.
1. “A força dos frágeis é que é a beleza, porque a força dos fortes é uma coisa obscena.” Jorge Mourinha, “Objeto Entre,” interview with Teresa Villaverde and Beatriz Batarda, , in Portuguese.
2. Post-screening talk, Mostra Internacional de Cinema, São Paulo, Brazil, November 2011.
3. Cisne press conference video clip, http://www.labiennale.org/it/cinema/videocenter/68orizzonti-22.html, Venice Film Festival official website.
5. For more on Duende, see Frederico García Lorca, “Play and the Theory of Duende,” In Search of Duende, Christopher Mauer, editor (New York: New Directions Pearls, 2010).
6. Ela Bittencourt, ‘“One day, the swan sang this with its wings”:An Interview with Teresa Villaverde’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 65.