Actor-director João César Monteiro’s films often take place in just a few quiet corners of Lisbon, but their philosophical scope encompasses everything between his cajones and the cosmos.
Monteiro, the star of an eleven-film BAM retro, was a modernist scavenger, his artistic persona that of a tramp dumpster diving through Western civilization, pinching from movies, music, painting, theater. His 1997 The Hips of J.W. begins by staging an early August Strindberg play, “Coram Populo!” It’s Strindberg’s inversion of the creation story. God (played by Monteiro) is a malicious sybarite living in a brothel of angels who takes pleasure in Man’s agonies; it’s Lucifer who loves us, and delivers the Good News of death and surrender.
This should clarify Monteiro’s worldview. Authority is invalid, corruption endemic, and death a release—the last idea climaxes in his self-filmed funeral, 2003’s Come and Go. Monteiro came of age in Portugal under Antonio Salazar’s “Estado Novo” regime, Europe’s longest-lived strongman dictatorship, sustained in collusion with the church. Against this official order, Monteiro’s sympathies went with the undesirables—the prostitutes, perverts, paranoiacs, lunatics, suicidals, and the artists, often a bit of each.
It’s hard to imagine Monteiro, who plays the aging letch so well in his films, was ever young, but he must have been. After a dalliance with London Film School in the early ’60s, he knocked around boho Lisbon, wrote film criticism, and in 1969 made his first short, an homage to the poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, beginning a filmmaking career most enamored of spoken text—2001’s Snow White consists almost entirely of a black screen, over which actors recite Robert Walser’s fairy tale play.
The earliest work playing at BAM is another folklore piece: 1977’s Trails, his third feature, made in the years after the Carnation Revolution ended the Estado Novo and unbottled Monteiro. Trails follows paths trod for generations. It begins as an ethnographic documentary on the collective memory of villagers—the oral tradition and music of Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro province—then shades into fable fictions, with parallel stories of fugitive young lovers on the lam from patriarch-villains. Monteiro’s temperament is essentially poetic, and so his narratives obey rhyme above reason. One storyline has the lovely Branca-Flor pursued by a demon father out of medieval legend; another takes an anachronistic leap to encounter a distinctly 20th century slave-driving landowner and toadying priest.
Each shot of Trails is a fresh draught of the Portuguese countryside’s variegated natural beauty. His next feature, Silvestre (1982), is a work of stunning studio artifice. A mewling fadista singer opens this hybrid of two 15th century Portuguese texts, a grudge match between a Bluebeard demon and a chaste gentlewoman who disguises herself as a knight errant (played by 17-year-old Maria de Medeiros, Botticelli-beautiful in her first film). It looks the way an illiterate shepherd who’s never seen a movie might visualize a storyteller’s campfire tale. The backgrounds are otherworldly, forward-projected tapestries of landscape; the cross-sectioned sets and huddled blocking create Sienese School cinematography.
Monteiro debuts as his own leading man in 1989’s Recollections of the Yellow House. His alter ego João de Deus is a world-weary, chain-smoking, pubic-hair-collecting girl watcher who will be reincarnated in films to come. With his vulture-like countenance, weedy hermit’s frame, and exquisite gestures, Monteiro cuts a figure fit for silent film comedy. At the center of House is João’s Peeping Tom fixation on his landlady’s daughter, who lives down the hall from his own ascetic cell, decorated only by an Erich von Stroheim poster. Von Stroheim’s S & M image will eventually possess de Deus, as will Max Schreck’s Nosferatu—transformations that make as much narrative sense as the fact that João, who ends this film in the asylum, reappears as an ice cream parlor manager at the start of God’s Comedy (1995). More than a storyline, what runs between House and its “sequels” is a mood and style: Microscopic gags, epic runtimes, erratic plots, perfectly snipped-off long takes, and dreamy sensuality—de Deus is not a great seducer, but the films are perfumed with his love of women.
João de Deus—John of God—shares his name with a Portuguese saint. It’s one of Monteiro’s many ironies that his films, in their hush and solitude, have a sense of the sacred to go with their transgressor director’s small-c catholic pantheon. Hips of J.W. even approaches theological debate… not over the lord versus the devil but over that 20th century God, John Wayne, and ends with Monteiro “saved from the blessings of civilization.”
Come and Go is the director’s lucid fade-out, made—like Wayne’s The Shootist!—as he was dying of cancer. Monteiro, decrepit and guru-like in illness, plays “João Vuvu,” a widower blown along by his own verbal gusts, his sole daily activity a floating bus-ride and its random encounters on the way to pass the afternoon in a sun-dappled park. Monteiro had a passion for filming natural light in flux. This, and Monteiro’s lingering awareness of mortality, may explain the heightened sense you get from these films that everything you’re seeing is happening only this one time. Monteiro was gone once Come and Go premiered. His epitaph, typical of his peculiar ecstatic pessimism, was already written in God’s Wedding (1999): “I will be dust, but dust in love.”