When it comes to Portuguese cinema—another national legacy Americans know next to nothing about—the argument usually begins and ends with Manoel de Oliveira. He’s the only one of his countrymen to have had films released here more than once, and fittingly, the cross section of Portuguese moviemaking scanned in BAM’s exhaustive series pivots on a few de Oliveira landmarks, including his international breakthrough, Abraham Valley (1993), and his first film, the 18-minute livelong-day doc Working the River Douro (1931). In fact, with the New York premiere of Word and Utopia (2000), a 92-year-old de Oliveira will appear in person for a sure-to-be-legend-making Q&A.
But de Oliveira’s pensive rarifications are the exception. Having been devastated by a lengthy dictatorship and the persistent demons of late colonialism like no other Western European nation, Portugal is a fecund soil for cultural anomie, disaffected realism, and the fuck-you hustle of a new generation of aimless children. The series is steeped in poverty and juvenile delinquency, invariably visualized with gritty naturalism and narratively conceived as a randomly shuffled deck of life moments. João Pedro Rodrigues’s notorious Phantom (2000) tracks the anti-odyssey of a young, gay Lisbon garbageman as he flits from one meaningless sexual encounter (a few of them hardcore) to another, making for a kind of Portuguese Savage Nights, but without the star power. Less mannered and more unsettling, Teresa Villaverde’s The Mutants (1998) follows a handful of teens and preteens as they weather the Portuguese child welfare system. Focusing on elfin-faced Ana Moreira as a 14-year-old escape artist with a baby on the way, Villaverde’s movie doesn’t dawdle with backstory, instead bouncing unpredictably from one character to another, often with breathtakingly blithe time leaps.
Likewise, Pedro Costa’s Bones (1997) plunges into the third-world-ish Lisbon shantytown inhabited by a suicidal teen mother, and António Ferreira’s award-winning featurette Breathing (Underwater) (1999) sketches out the quiet alienation of a brooding schoolboy lost in an ordinary world of obligations and constraints. Though child-free, Costa’s portrait of a desolate Cape Verde hellhole in Down to Earth (1994) is chilling, though not only socioeconomically so. It may be one of the few films on view to address realpolitik verities (along with Abi Feijó’s all-pencil noir animation The Outlaws (1993), which remembers the fallout from the Spanish Civil War), but Costa’s visual narrative is oblique, restless, and so abstract that the landscape does most of the storytelling. But of these badass songs, Manuela Viegas’s Glória (1999) rules supreme—an elliptical, patience-demanding reformulation of Bresson’s Mouchette that gazes at children’s ruined lives by way of Tarkovskyite tracking shots and prism-fractured plot strands.
The series is huge enough to house other sorts of prizes (including the silent milestone from 1930, Maria From the Sea), but perhaps the oddest revelation is João César Monteiro, a kind of Portuguese morph between Buñuel and Nanni Moretti. Having made unpredictable, ironic comedies since the ’70s, Monteiro (who sometimes credits himself as “o obscuro João“) began to place himself at the center of his films in the ’80s. As “João de Deus” in Recollections of the Yellow House (1989) and God’s Comedy (1995), the saturnine, skeletal Monteiro calmly goes about attempting to deflower a series of luscious young women, only to have his schemes end in disaster. Acidic and dry as toast, Monteiro’s films occupy an apolitical sphere—and are therefore coolly universal.