Berlinale 2021 review: Jack’s Ride (Susana Nobre)

Somewhere in Portugal, Joaquim is months away from retirement. He has agreed to leave his previous job and remain unemployed for a few weeks, for which it is required to demonstrate through stamps that he has applied to a number of jobs. However, both in the job placement center and in the businesses he visits, there’s a silent understanding that he’s only waiting for this symbolic period to end. We are about to ride in his car and the starting point is clear: the unintentional comedy that is like second nature to bureaucracy.

As we travel in between applications, Joaquim narrates his life as an immigrant in the US. This is one of the central topics in Susana Nobre’s second feature: the post-migration experience from the eyes of someone who changed his entire lifestyle for the sake of a better job, and is now on the brink of retirement. Joaquim moved to the US illegally, barely speaking English and working in a handful of trades as different as doorman, janitor in a jewelry factory or telephone technician. It is his stint as a taxi and limo driver that he reminisces the most on. He’d drive the stock brokers back to their homes after lavish nights out. These were the same men who controlled the fate of the local economy, meters away from Joaquim, stoic in the driver’s seat, like an additional gear to the car and to the machinery we call ‘the market’. Decades later, Joaquim first applies for a job in a pallet factory, followed by a hardware store where the same pallets are shown in use to transport materials, and finally materializing in a table in some office. The market sees few differences between workers and commodities.

Joaquim talks about his everyday struggle as an immigrant, the illusion – failure even – of his search for social upward mobility, and his unquestionable plan of returning to Portugal. The complicity between subject and director grows, and Nobre’s tone, at first deferential and sober, evolves into a more experimental style aiming to blur the frontier between reality and fiction (what seems to be one of the most consistent strategies or objectives of contemporary filmmaking). Joaquim is a perfect character to shoot an exercise on this subject: not only because of his story, but also for his looks straight out of a 1970s New Hollywood film: perfectly black pompadour hair, impeccable grooming, burgundy suits and leather jackets. What started as a borderline documentary is now a playful assemblage that travels back to New York and has Joaquim perform as his younger self in the fashion of a classic mid-century film.

Any effort to pigeonhole Susana Nobre’s film into a genre is unnecessary. It is relevant, however, to place her among a prolific group of directors (Gomes, Costa, and Pinho among them) who are meditating on labour, immigration and the role of Portugal as a periphery in the European project.