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Touching Portuguese drama with a documentary-feel reflects upon the attachment to rural roots, and inescapability of ageing and death - live from Cannes

QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM CANNES

Legua is the name of the rural village in North Portugal where we find the manor Casa da Botica, the centrepiece of the eponymous film by filmmakers Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra. The manor belongs to a family in Lisbon, who never visit yet have housekeepers looking after it as if they lived there permanently. Emilia (Fátima Soares) the primary housekeeper is at an age where she is no longer able to fulfil her duties diligently, employing the assistance of local Ana (Carla Maciel) who has a daughter Mónica (Vitória Nogueira da Silva), the first in her family to go to university.

Labour is the vehicle by which the film uses to showcase the generational shifts amongst these three women. There is an inordinate amount of screen time dedicated to observing Ana and Emilia working. Perversely meditative this prolonged observation into housework echoes films Jeanne Dielman and The Chambermaid (Lila Aviles, 2018), watching them gruellingly complete chore after chore, an instilled discipline and thoroughness passed on from one generation to the next. Yet it mostly speaks of the pointlessness of their efforts and the imbalanced class structures. The sheer amount of physical strain, probably on minimum wage, to impeccably maintain a place to the obliviousness of its rich owners.

The focus lies with Ana; in her late 40s, the Gen-Xer, the sort-of intermediary between the old and new. There is an emphasis to draw an intricate picture of her: a demure character, a workhorse, a caring mother, but also as another version of a modern woman who despite the remoteness of her village is still engaged with the world, aware of her own desires, who seeks to looks after herself and her appearance. The chief burden lies with her, having to sustain a family with an absentee husband – he moved to France in order to find work. Declining to follow him predicates an attachment to her roots, while her inclination to defend Emilia’s behaviour to her sceptical daughter denotes a more compassionate view for traditional values.

Emilia’s stern assiduousness comes part-n-parcel with the post-war generation, a sense of self-restraint and strictness that verges on the masochist; an offering to her of a sweet pastry is riddled by intrinsic guilt. Juxtaposing Monica’s care-free approach, an empowered young woman less shackled to the conservative and patriarchal forces of the past. Her youthful longing for experimentation suggests her future lies elsewhere. And yet idea that university and life in the big city will lead to a more secure and prosperous future, is also wishful thinking.

The camera is regularly kept still and at shooting distance, recording events as if they unfolded naturally without any direction. There is a documentary feel from the get-go, taking the viewer a couple of minutes to grasp that Legua is a feature – Reis and Guerra cleverly utilising their previous skills as documentarians. Yet there are off-tangent scenes peppered throughout which feel unevenly off kilter; interjections set up to give a sense of impromptu. At points they even attempt at being comedic, but come across as stagey instead, standing out rather than blending in. Such efforts are a little pointless in a film that strives to be as realistic as possible in style and form.

As Emilia’s health declines, Ana is having to take on her caretaker duties. If watching Emilia’s slow and gradual withdrawal and decay does drag on a fair bit, its message is very poignant. The realisation that the struggle, hard work and achievements is futile in the face inescapable ageing and death is a painful one.

Legua has just premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival, as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section.


By Daniel Theophanous - 23-05-2023

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