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Portrait of a Certain Orient (Retrato de um Certo Oriente)

Three Arabs migrate from Lebanon to the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, in this tale of passion, religion, cultural barriers and male competition - from the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam


Marcelo Gomes’ eight feature film begins at some point after WW2 in a convent on the mountains of Lebanon. Emir (Zakaria Kaakour) storms into the secluded building with a gun to hand and threatens to kill himself right in front of the sisters unless they allow the beautiful Emilie (Wafa’a Celine Halawi) to depart with him. Only a man wildly in love would do that for a woman, correct? Indeed right. The problem is that Emir is in reality Emilie’s brother. He possesses a pathological and borderline incestuous jealousy of his stunningly beautiful and outgoing sister, with a genuine loving smile. His physique and his psychology are far less impressive: Emir is short, scrawny, socially awkward and perhaps with a mild learning disability. Not quite the picture of virility.

He reveals that to his sibling that he sold their parents’ house so that they can move to Brazil, a country teeming with job opportunities. This is where swathes of European, Lebanese, Syrian, and people of many other nationalities chose to settle throughout the 20th century. We see images and hear testimonials by these immigrants – Lebanese, Polish, Italian, etc – on the extremely long boat journey. First they cross the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and then the Amazon River as they head towards the Brazilian El Dorado, the fast-growing city of Manaus. This is where Emilie becomes romantically involved with a handsome Libyan-born Lebanese called Omar (Charbel Kamel), thus infuriating her extremely insecure brother. Emir explains that his hate of Omar is related to their creed: Omar is a Muslim, while the two siblings are Christians. Religion obviously isn’t the only reason for such deep-seated sentiment. There are more things in heaven and earth.

Entirely filmed in crisp black and white and with a broad spectrum of lenses distorting and emphasising the vastness of the jungle, Portrait of a Certain Orient has an impressive cinematography signed by Marcelo Gomes’ regular collaborator Pierre de Kerchove. The close-up of the Amazon plants are exquisite, while snapshots of immigrants and Amazon dance/culture have a distinct vintage feel, as well as an anthropological value. Brazil is a country defined by consecutive waves of immigration, and Portrait provides a visual register of this phenomenon. This is an elegant, atmospheric and melancholic art film with exuberant images waiting to be contemplated. Indeed a portrait.

The international cast includes Brazilian, Emirati, Lebanese and Italian actors, in a film spoken in Arabic, French and Portuguese. Halawi is extremely captivating, particularly as her character dabbles with her first Portuguese words (Omar becomes her language teacher, as he had previously been to Brazil). It is precisely over these lessons that they begin to bond, and the couple have an undeniable chemistry. The performances are entirely auspicious, however secondary to the gently framed imagery. Some of the most intense and dramatic moments are toned down in favour of the photography. Aesthetics often prevail above dramaturgy.

Based on Milton Hatoum’s novel Report of a Certain Orient (himself an Amazonian Brazilian born to Lebanese parents), this slow and contemplative movie is extremely Brazilian in more ways than one. The ardent sensuality is more closely associated with the Latin American nation than with Lebanon. And the topic of multiple males fighting for an astounding woman with bloody consequences is a common theme in Brazilian cinema and indeed in Hatoum’s bibliography (Sergio Machado’s River of Desire, from 2022, is based on another book of his books, and the two plots have remarkable similarities). Arab cinema is less used to such frank sexuality, and to the idea that men should compete for a woman. I wonder how Middle Eastern audiences will enjoy this Brazilian delicacy.

Portrait of a Certain Orient just premiered at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.

By Victor Fraga - 30-01-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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