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BERLINALE 2019 Forum

Rita Azevedo Gomes • Director of The Portuguese Woman

“You can find an equal amount of truth in Dostoyevsky and in some quality contemporary writing”


- BERLIN 2019: We caught up with Portugal’s Rita Azevedo Gomes to talk about her interesting casting choices in her fifth fiction feature, The Portuguese Woman

Rita Azevedo Gomes  • Director of The Portuguese Woman

In her fifth fiction feature, The Portuguese Woman [+see also:
film review
interview: Rita Azevedo Gomes
film profile
, screened in the Forum programme of the 69th Berlinale, Portugal’s Rita Azevedo Gomes turns to Robert Musil’s story from the classic Three Women (1924), about a young woman (Clara Riedenstein) who has to come to terms with years of solitude spent in a modest castle on the Brenner Pass, while her husband, Baron von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe), is busy fighting wars with the local clergy. Cineuropa spoke to the director about her interesting casting choices and how a modern composition can tie in perfectly with a period drama.

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Cineuropa: What attracts you to literary classics?
Rita Azevedo Gomes:
 When I have a good book in my hands, it serves as a basis for new ideas. Sometimes, I see films with poor dialogue that can’t even hold a sentence together, and the ideas get lost. That makes me depressed. When I read a novel that intrigues me, it is its enigmatic side that makes me start asking questions. I like stories that are not explained to the reader, because they leave room for countless interpretations, and I immediately create images in my head. You could say that every good book speaks the language of real people. Human nature doesn’t change much, and you can find an equal amount of truth in Dostoyevsky and in some quality contemporary writing.

In the film, you combine classics by using poems from different eras, such as Under der Linden by Walther von der Vogelweide.
I was listening to a lot of medieval music, which is not really my cup of tea, but then I heard this particular song that made me want to look for the poem. It fitted in with the story in a way because it’s about paradise lost. At the beginning, the Portuguese woman is quite happy on her honeymoon, and when her husband returns home for the first time, there is a joyful, playful bath scene. But that sensuality gets lost over time. The poem spoke to me, so I had Ingrid Caven sing it in the film.

The music by José Mário Brancois also interesting in terms of the mixture of time periods.
I didn’t really know how it was going to work, but I trusted him. He had a vision and was insisting on including Francis Poulenc’s interpretation of Charles d’Orléans. It is not a piece from that time; it came long after, but I didn’t care, because it’s a majestic and elegant piece of music.  

The whole setting and the cinematography give the film an atmosphere akin to the golden age of Flemish painting.
One of the first things I did was to test the cameras, because when we used to do films old-school with, let’s say, a watercolour impression, it was a completely different story. Digital images behave differently, and I had to see how different cameras capture different situations, particularly those related to textures and materials. I had to check how the hair would look, or the colour of people’s skin and the way the silk shines. The image had to have the right greens and blues; it had to capture nature in a very specific manner. We also had to cheat a bit in order to take away certain digital aspects that we didn’t like that much.

I was wondering about your casting decisions, mainly regarding Clara Riedenstein and Ingrid Caven.
I wanted to cast Ingrid Caven previously in Correspondences [+see also:
film review
film profile
, but this is actually our first collaboration. Not only is she a consummate professional, but she is also quite amusing and eloquent. In The Portuguese Woman, her character contrasts with the classical-era narrative. She is the visitor who’s wandering through the film, commenting on it by performing different songs. She has one foot in the past and one in the present. Regarding Clara, when I saw her, I knew immediately that she would be my Portuguese woman, although she was only 16 years old at the time.

The locations are incredibly reminiscent of the description in Musil’s story; were they difficult to find?
I found the interiors in one place and the exteriors in the north of Portugal, so I had to make it look like we were in the same castle. I wanted a castle on top of a rock, which was at completely the other end of the country. Imagine filming a scene where you go through a corridor that’s in one part of Portugal and you enter the living room, which is in the north of the country, and then you go down a stairway, which is again in a different place. But also, the difference in microclimate was an issue. I would try to match it up sequence by sequence to see if it was going to work.

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