Berlinale 2019 Review: The Portuguese Woman (Rita Azevedo Gomes)

There are two sides of war. Storytelling consistently focuses on the relationship between winner and loser, but there is also a dichotomy between those who battle and those who wait at home for the fighters to return. Historically, the latter is the side of women, of children, of the elderly.

A young Portuguese woman got married to Von Ketten, an Italian nobleman who, like his father and grandfather, had spent his life fighting a war over a territorial dispute against the Bishop of Trento. Roughly a year after their wedding, the girl – played by Clara Riedenstein – gave birth to their first son. Days later, Von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe) left for war, sending his wife to a decaying castle. She spends years separated from her husband and the world outside of their estate.

Von Ketten’s patronymic carries a significance: it means chain, surely a metaphor for the burden the marriage represents to his wife, a nameless Portuguese woman. Yet this lack of identity does not aim to derogate the character: Azevedo Gomes’ film – adapted from Robert Musil’s 1924 novella – is an intrinsically feminist tale.

During her isolation, the Portuguese woman spends her time chatting with her retinue, creating art, evading the people who come to the castle to retrieve her husband’s debt. She adopts a wolf: there’s an almost Franciscan quality in the woman, in her ascetic lifestyle, in her kindness to animals and to people supposed to be her inferiors. She ends up accused of being a heretic, a witch.

Seven years later, Von Ketten returns. Whatever is left of him. “Let me clean your wound, that at least,” his wife asks. The reunion is not effusive. Von Ketten regards her as a burden in times of war. It’s the arrival of her cousin that disturbs the stillness at the castle. Pero Lobato (João Vicente) is taking a break from his studies in Bologna. His visit delights the young woman, inducing jealousy in Von Ketten. The closeness between cousins allows her to open up about the constant yearning for her homeland. “You can die anywhere. Living anywhere, that’s another question.

The conflict between Von Ketten and the Bishop of Trento reveals how war is, culturally, a construction of men as a gender. War is regarded as inherent to the gender, and as a more noble condition than peace. Women are treated as background, yet they are the ones who remain in charge of the territory and the children men are fighting for. The belligerent perspective is so partial their words become ridiculous.

Rita Azevedo Gomes’ seventh feature is a work of undeniable maturity and cinematic richness. In what has become a trademark of recent Portuguese cinema (particularly Miguel Gomes and João Pedro Rodrigues), the film is choreographed in an almost theatrical way, yet restrains itself through sober dialogue and acting. The film often questions its own temporality: multilingual musical interludes; contrast between architectural decay and furniture, sculpture and costumes that seem either brand new or contemporary; and a masterful time lapse in the first third of the film. The Portuguese Woman is a period piece that flirts with surrealism and still works as a metaphor for issues that could not be more current.