Alice in the city
by Vitor Pinto
28/09/2005 - Some films show pride in their singularity: projects that are difficult to pigeonhole and which draw neither on heritage nor genre for inspiration. One could say that Marco Martins first feature film was directed in the spirit of such wilful independence. Alice, awarded the Jeunes Regards (Youth) prize at the last Cannes Festival (where it was part of the Directors’ Fortnight programme), is an atypical production within the Portuguese cinema – of both the present and the past – but is also, or especially, the tale of a loss that resists the all too easy temptation to succumb to melodrama, the story of a quest free of the trappings of suspense.
Situated in a drab Lisbon – far removed from the light-filled capital filmed by others –, and plunged into a blue-tinted atmosphere, the film is all about a father searching for his daughter, Alice, who has been missing for 193 days. Having lost confidence in the authorities, Mário (Nuno Lopes) embarks on his own parallel private investigation: not only does he start distributing posters bearing Alice’s photo, but, with a little help from his friends, sets up several cameras in strategic areas around Lisbon: city centre shop balconies, building rooftops, shopping malls, the airport,...
In his first major role, Nuno Lopes – unrecognisable, a metaphor for his character’s fatigue – carries the film. Omnipresent, he covers the same ground day after day after day; Martins’ camera hounds him and his obsessive rituals seem choreographed by the haunting soundtrack of Bernardo Sassetti (who contributed to the original soundtrack of Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley). The daily viewing of the cassettes seems almost pathological, but is, for Mário, the materialisation of a hope that combats the emptiness of the blurred image, where all faces merge into one, where all spaces form one big void. These days are groundhog days, as ominous as they are vital.
Mário’s "hope-springs-eternal" attitude contrasts with the dormant despair of Alice’s mother, Luísa (Beatriz Batarda, death warmed up). The screenplay, written by the director, nonetheless dedicates very few sequences to the life of this fragilised married couple. In one flashback, we see Mário trying to calm a hysterical Luísa down on the day of Alice’s disappearance in what is, perhaps, the film’s only concession to melodrama. Alice could be a family drama but it has not been filmed with this in mind. What interests Martins is to film a personal obsession and one man’s lacerating solitude. All the other characters – well-known Portuguese actors like Miguel Guilherme, Ana Bustorff and Laura Soveral – are there only to nourish this obsession, in all its aspects, even if at the end of it all Mário is still isolated in his quest and his hope. "What if it turns out that Alice is no longer in Lisbon?" – someone asks him. "What else could I do?", he replies.
Produced by Paulo Branco for Clap Filmes, Marco Martins’s film reveals a filmmaker unafraid of taking risks, who neither fears nor challenges the spectator’s patience nor, indeed, plays on their expectations. Alice, a name reminiscent of the fantasy world behind the mirror (Lewis Carroll, in fact, is given a mention in the closing credits), is from now on synonymous with the unmissable in Portuguese cinematography.