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On the fateful evening of September 18th, a clearly shaken Lucia (Iolanda Laranjeiro) attends the local police station in Lisbon in order to file a rape report. Her husband Miguel (Joao Catarre) has just violated her, she claims. The officers hesitate to register the report upon finding out that the alleged rapist is the son of the vice attorney general. She then undergoes a very thorough examination: a doctor inspects her genitals, her blood is taken, and she has to answer an endless number of highly intrusive questions.
A flustered Lucia moves in with her friend Rodrigo, a hairdresser, until she can fend for herself. Three months later, she finds out that her husband impregnated her with his child. She decides to keep the baby despite the tragic circumstances of the conception. She still wishes to press charges against Miguel, despite being advised against it. If her husband goes to prison, she could lose her alimony and her child could grow up without a father. But Lucia isn’t interested in money: she’s seeking justice instead.
Despite the many hurdles, Lucia succeeds in taking the case to court, where the second half of this 117-minute drama takes place. For the first time, we see Miguel’s face. The husband doesn’t look like a rabid predator. He even evokes some sympathy: he tried to commit suicide shortly after the alleged rape, and he claims that he is still in love with Lucia. He also says that he always treated his wife with kindness, and that he only forced himself upon Lucia because their sex life was poor, and she has previously encouraged him to “push things further” if she hesitated too much. He seems very honest.
Lucia confirms the veracity of everything Miguel states, immediately prompting one of the prosecutors to call off the trial: “this is no rape!”. The judge order proceedings to move forward nonetheless. Lucia looks back at the early days of the marriage and explains how her relationship progressively changed. She slowly uproots the old-fashioned power structures that still define the marriage institution in a seemingly progressive country such as Portugal. The onus of fertility is always on the woman, while the bonus of sexual pleasure lies with man. The male control mechanisms are pervasive, often disguised as chivalry. Miguel asked Lucia to stop working in order to cripple her independence, thereby creating the perfect trophy wife, but a prosecutor instead describes his gesture as an “act of love”. It took at least a year for Lucia to realise that the man she married was in reality very conservative.
Lucia’s sex life is analysed in painful detail. We learn about her inability to self-lubricate and copious bleeding following copulation. Prosecutors unilaterally come to the conclusion that Lucia isn’t a very sexual person, almost to the point of calling her “frigid”. They never entertain the possibility that her husband never endeavoured to please his wife. As always, the fault lies with the woman.
The authenticity of Submission is entirely tangible. Laranjeiro delivers a quietly powerful performance. Her face is swollen with intense suffering, yet her head is up with unshakeable determination. Little by little, she eloquently vocalises her internal afflictions. Her description of the rape will hit you like a ton of bricks. Not since Pablo Larraín’s The Club (2016) have I heard such a vivid description of sexual violence in film. The fact that the rape is narrated instead of illustrated makes the sequence even more powerful, allowing us to focus on the facial expressions of the victim. That’s both anti-erotic and harrowing. I literally had vivid and graphic nightmares all night, painting the horrific details of the rape scene with the paintbrush of my very own imagination.
And it isn’t just Laranjeiro’s lines that are rich in detail. The interaction with the police, the pre-trial meetings, the court proceedings and the group therapy sessions are dotted with the minutiae of oppression. The subtle humiliation and the gradual degradation associated with marriage and separation are clear for everyone to see. Multilayered dialogues are combined with propitious performances and spiced with a few poetic devices (such as the Norwegian lullaby Sa Ro Godt Barn). A very finely-crafted piece of filmmaking.
Submission has just premiered in the Official Competition of the 24th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.