The Portuguese Nun (A Religiosa Portuguesa, 2009)

Director: Eugène Green

By Marilyn Ferdinand

You’ve got to love a director who makes fun of formalist arthouse films right at the start of his formalist arthouse film—“The film is . . . unconventional,” says his main character, Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque), to the woman doing her make-up, who replies, “Boring, you mean.”—and then goes ahead with it, letting Julie speak his wish for the film: “I hope not. The story moves me.”

The self-reflexive meanings within meanings, of art imitating art as a means to tell the truth, as evidenced by this hope about the film French actress Julie is in Lisbon to film and the film Leonor Baldaque is in Lisbon to film (even director Green plays director Denis Verde [green]), comprise the main schema of The Portuguese Nun. The film’s main theme is the folly of earthly love, signaled by the project with which Julie has involved herself: a dramatization of Letters of a Portuguese Nun, comprising the love letters of said nun to a French officer with whom she had a passionate affair that were thought genuine until they were revealed to be a work of fiction. Julie, whose mother was from Lisbon and whose father was French Basque, speaks Portuguese but has never been to Lisbon before. Because of a leisurely shooting schedule, she spends a good deal of time wandering through the city, exploring her origins and learning to forgo her usual habit of brief, intense romances and embrace abiding love in some amusing ways.

Aside from the desk clerk at her hotel, who thinks Lisbon would be great if not for all the intellectuals, every male in this film is in thrall to Julie. She encounters an orphan boy, Vasco (Francisco Mozos), who tells her she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. She exchanges glances with an older man (Diogo Dória) in a restaurant, and he gives her his card; when she impulsively calls him the next night and accompanies him for the evening, she learns she has saved him from killing himself that very night and given him the will to go on. When she meets her handsome costar Martin (Adrien Michaux), who is happily married to a woman for whom he feels no passion, she does the good deed of sleeping with him so that he can feel he has not been cheated of anything by staying with his wife. Even a brief encounter at a disco with a man (Carloto Cotta) who asks her to dance becomes a mystical meeting at which she declares that he is the reincarnation of D. Sebastião, a 16th century king of Portugal who, legend has it, is supposed to step from a fog to restore the country as a world power. They meet again near the end of the film, and he tell her that he thinks she’s right about his true identity. In fairytale fashion, she tells him that if they meet a third time, she will tell him her name and be his forever because one cannot escape one’s destiny.

But it is Green who is Julie/Leonor’s most ardent admirer. You can see it in his face every time he plays a scene with her. He gives her a much larger wardrobe of beautiful, flowing clothes than she would ever need for a few days in Lisbon, and when the wind kicks up during any of Julie/Leonor’s strolls in her spaghetti-strap sundresses, a pretty wrap or sweater magically appears to keep her warm for the rest of the scene. Unaccountably, however, he puts her in clunky high heels for her long walks through the cobblestone streets; not only is it impossible to imagine her going very far in them, but they actually pitch her body at a very awkward angle. Green also gives her the increasingly distracting direction to open her doelike, brown eyes as wide as possible as often as possible and to refrain from blinking as he gives us straight-on views of her face. This technique was most jarring when Julie hears music and turns a corner to see a fado band playing, it seems, just for her. The camera cuts between close-ups of her unblinking face and the singer, whose eyes are little more than long-lashed slits as he tells a story that might have been her own. Although I loved the music and it was used well throughout the film, this interlude felt a bit like it was clipped out of a Bollywood musical.

The most problematic part of the film for me is the encounter Julie has with a real Portuguese nun (of course, not really real—she is played by Ana Moreira) in a chapel where the nun prays nightly. Julie has watched her from the back of the chapel on several nights, but they finally interact when the nun revives Julie, who has fainted among the pews. The cause of her fainting spell was seeing Sister Joana—a name the nun assumed in reverence for St. Joan of Arc—disappear and then reappear. The conversation they have about there being only one kind of love, and God being besieged (or besieging, I really couldn’t figure it out) left me more or less in the dust. This may have been by design, as Sister Joana asserts that reason was not created by God and does not exist, but giving us dialogue that can’t be reasoned out is a cheat and rather cheapens Julie’s apparent spiritual awakening, turning over of new leaves, giving of genuine love to little Vasco, etc. etc.

Green has a sly wit that had me thinking for quite some time that this was a romantic comedy. But the humor was not pitched well enough or sustained, nor was the seriousness of purpose consistent. In the end, the film was a bit too tricked up for its own good to be either a parody or an introspective examination of love. Such films are possible (see Certified Copy for the best recent example to date), but Green doesn’t seem to have grown an organic style of his own. When he stops having short passions with various film techniques and finds the slow-burning love of his life, his films will take the great leap forward they truly are poised to make.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    10th/03/2011 to 1:43 pm

    “Green has a sly wit that had me thinking for quite some time that this was a romantic comedy. But the humor was not pitched well enough or sustained, nor was the seriousness of purpose consistent. In the end, the film was a bit too tricked up for its own good to be either a parody or an introspective examination of love. Such films are possible (see Certified Copy for the best recent example to date), but Green doesn’t seem to have grown an organic style of his own. ”

    Well Marilyn, I will be seeing CERTIFIED COPY in fact over the weekend, and well remember your not so long ago review during your CIFF run, but I am very much interested in the subject of THE PURTUGESE NUN, and the self-imposed irony you relate at the outset. Alas though, your verdict in clear enough, and there are a number of essentials out there including the aforementioned Kiarostami.

    A witty and perceptive essay!

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    10th/03/2011 to 2:04 pm

    I don’t this I could see this movie without thinking about Jesus.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    10th/03/2011 to 2:06 pm

    Aarggh. Proof read! More coffee! It should read, “I don’t think I could see this movie . . .”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/03/2011 to 2:29 pm

    Ha! Now I have to see that film, Peter.

    Sam – This film really reminded me of Certified Copy, but it comes nowhere near the original (irony intended).

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    13th/03/2011 to 1:11 pm

    I just got in the house after seeing CERTIFIED COPY at the IFC with Lucille.

    It’s a masterpiece, the fourth one this year in fact, joining OF GODS AND MEN, POETRY and UNCLE BOONME. It’s quietly devastating and brilliantly observed.

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