I should first thank Rui Santos for giving me a chance to revisit a wonderful and provocative film: Ana, directed by Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis. A film that I discovered thanks to Paulo Rocha and that I have seen (twice) in less than perfect conditions and hence was seeing as if for the first time… The following notes were written in haste, so as not to arrive unprepared for the November 22 – 23 colloquium at which I will take part, alongside Haden Guest, Mark McElhatten, Nathaniel Dorsky and Joaquim Sapinho at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
1. Ana is a film that offers a degree of resistance to the viewer. One of those films that goes against the grain in terms of the consecutive, sometimes overlapping screenings that are an inevitable feature of film festival viewing. A film that enjoins upon the viewer another rhythm, another form of “consumption” altogether, without one risks understanding nothing or being put off. So in one sense, for a festival director, talking about Ana is the equivalent to embarking on a form of self-criticism. Such a mysterious, unique, provocative object likewise demands a response in terms of programming. How to program such a film so that the film’s language “rugged as granite” manages to work its poetry? How to acknowledge its qualities and enable them to be appreciated? How best to place it, as if it were a film that was new to me?
Ana is a film that also holds up well in temporal terms. Made over thirty years ago, it continues to have an effect on successive generations of filmmakers and viewers. In Portugal and elsewhere. If festivals are inevitably more oriented to the present and its accumulation of stresses, it is a salutary exercise to look back from a distance to see what has endured and what has faded away with the passing of time (a timeline to which film is also subject, and which it seeks to oppose). Seeing Ana again also prompts the observation how very, very rare are the types of film, if not of cinema, that position themselves completely outside market logic. Films like Ana are not made to corner the market in festival awards, nor to be sold or acquired. But can cinema – that which wants to survive as such – really be reduced to the logic of the marketplace?
2. The question of territory is central, at least in that kind of cinema that considers the act of filming to be closely connected to the philosophical question: where am I? After seeing Tras-os-Montes, the first feature by the poet Reis and his partner Margarida Cordeiro, Jean Rouch publicly praised the obduracy with which Reis (and Cordeiro) had rendered, cinematically, that “difficult communion between men, landscapes, and seasons”. Ana, with its refined pictorial references, adds another component to the project to express an entire region. The film has that amalgamation of the universal and the singular which Daney talked about; with a single gesture, Reis and Cordeiro connect as much to a story that has, through reflection and experimentation, achieved a way to convey a relationship with the landscape in picture and sound, as to all that which belongs to another order altogether, which could only be defined as “life” itself. On the one hand, there is the artistic experience, conveyed in the composition of the “picture”, in the use of light, on the other hand there is the relationship with those who have lived, and live, in this space, and who convey that relationship through the rhythm of gesture. In this two-fold relationship with the land, with a territory, the film leapfrogs realism and all its mimetic pretensions. From this perspective, it is clear that Ana, precisely because it rests upon the concept of duration, being constructed of long single takes and extended shots, is a form of documentary in which film documents something beyond the present tense.
3. Portuguese cinema fascinates me because, like that of Japan, it manages to deal with the basic elements: stone, water, land… Above all, the directors who have worked in the north of this country have expressed a strong relationship with these elements that pre-date man. In its journey into a peasant culture, Ana achieves an awe-inspiring continual back and forth between that which is an expression of human intervention in the landscape (be it a path, a field under cultivation, a house) and that which still continues to resist man. Beyond the choice of framing and compositions within the film, it is the use of color that contributes to this effect. Colors appear as tell-tale signs of that which holds a landscape together, in other words, that dimension of nature for which peasant culture has always nourished an enormous respect. (Hence a house in a field is in real harmony with the peasant world, while a modern house in the same context tends to stand out in contrast.) The use and play of color in Ana reveal yet another approach. Frequently it is the colors that enable a transition from one composition to the next, one time frame to another, one level of narrative structure to another. Color in Ana (especially red) constitutes a language in its own right. Or maybe a terrain in which man and nature can come together.
4. Although it is not part of the colloquium’s theme, (A Different Light) it is impossible to seek a way to approach this film without mentioning its soundtrack. The softness of the voices, beginning with that of the academic discussing the obscure relationships between Mesopotamia and Portuguese culture, is counterpointed by the howling of the wind. Bach’s powerful harmonies, the poetry of Rilke (read by Reis himself)… Sound is not only an additional dimension that enriches the film’s already complex layers of meaning; it not only continually offers new perspectives on what we are seeing, enabling us to notice details in the background (see the passing cars in the background of a bucolic scene), it is the element that supports the film’s impact on the emotions. Whether that be highlighting an unnatural silence or introducing birdsong, almost as if it were the counterpoint to a beam of light dissecting the frame, the soundtrack in Ana is what enables the viewer to access the incomparable poetry with which its visual structure is imbued. So it could be said that the film is heard before it is seen.