Berlinale 2023 review: Bad Living (João Canijo)

Bad Living is a poignant and provocative psychological drama that takes aim at the very fundamental nature of human existence, weaving a compelling story of identity, as shown through the eyes of five women.”

Somewhere in the idyllic Portuguese countryside sits a quaint but stunning hotel, which is the setting for Bad Living (Mal viver), the first half of João Canijo’s incredible diptych, in which he investigates and interrogates a variety of themes, ranging from femininity to the most intricate details that make us human, and the extent to which these can be eroded over time, especially when we are surrounded by forces that put our fundamental humanity at risk. These are the ideas that pulsate throughout this film, which draws on influences like Ingmar Bergman and Henrik Ibsen in its examination of some profoundly moving themes, taking the form of an intimate chamber drama based around the four women who run the hotel, and the prodigal daughter that returns after years away from her mother, who welcomes her home, not realizing that her presence is about to unsettle the very careful balance that has been cultivated by the proprietors of this hotel. Relationships are challenged and deep secrets that these characters had hoped would remain hidden in the past are unearthed, leading to a hauntingly beautiful but deeply unsettling conclusion that brings all these themes together in the form of a harrowing psychological drama based around the very nature of existence, as filtered through the perspective of seemingly ordinary individuals who have their delicate lives dismantled by the simple act of being confronted by reality, something that they had all been actively avoiding, but which they knew they could not evade for long.  

Canijo is unquestionably one of the most important auteurs in Lusophone cinema, and the work he has done over the past two decades has been an invaluable contribution to Portugal’s artistic output. One of the aspects that has set him apart from his contemporaries is his ability to weave the most compelling narratives from very limited material, working with only a few fundamental themes, but crafting delicately human dramas from these ideas. His interest in foregrounding female characters (which was the primary reason his most well-regarded film, Sangue do Meu Sangue, has been proclaimed as one of the most important Portuguese films of the modern era) has carried over, being the foundation on which Bad Living is built. Much like in the past, the director is looking at the concept of family, particularly that of motherhood. In a culture that pays particular credence to the concept of familial matriarchs, exploring the relationship between mothers and their offspring (as well as other maternal figures) was certainly not a tenuous decision. However, it is the specific ideas that the film evokes that make the difference, with Canijo’s profound story of three generations of women dealing with trauma that is both personal and embedded in the cultural history, being quietly devastating. He explores the intergenerational tensions that exist between these characters, extracting several provocative ideas that ultimately begin to define this film and its fascinating identity, which is constantly shifting, changing our perception of these characters and their surroundings, which creates a profoundly unsettling but enticing atmosphere.

Bad Living is a film that is primarily propelled by a strong combination of both the narrative and its execution – and while the premise and the writing are both superb, the most striking moments in this film come in the creative decisions made in bringing it to life. Canijo’s realization of these bold ideas reflects the same unsettling environment that is created in the story itself, constructing a vibrant and compelling visual poem that is not afraid to peer behind the veneer of perfectly placed furniture and well-maintained architecture to show the bleakness that lurks beneath the surface. Much of this film takes place looking through windows and peering into rooms through doors left slightly ajar – we are voyeurs, observing the lives of these people as they navigate increasingly hostile psychological territory, which is only worsened by the growing tensions between them, causing them to all simultaneously unravel until nothing is left except the rawest depiction of five women teetering dangerously close to a breakdown. This film can often be quite difficult in terms of how it portrays the interactions between these characters, and the camera captures every brow-beaten emotion in vivid detail. The actors are responsible for shading in these characters, with Anabela Moreira and Rita Blanco being standouts – the former as a woman trying desperately to maintain her sanity, while the latter delivers one of the most terrifying performances in years as her mother, a seemingly quiet and principled woman who possesses an apoplectic rage that results in one of the most haunting scenes in the film. Both actors (as well as the entire cast) would warrant recognition for bringing this film to life through their committed, powerful performances, which add a valuable human touch to a profoundly challenging film.

Decoding the meaning beneath the surface of Bad Living is not an easy endeavour, but it is one that is profoundly worth the effort, since we are able to uncover many fascinating ideas that were tenderly placed throughout the film by the director, whose ability to plumb the emotional depths of the human condition and draw attention to the most poetic and disturbing details in tandem has made him one of our great contemporary storytellers, and someone whose interest in various subjects has become a defining aspect of his artistic identity. Whether in the gorgeous cinematography that captures these surroundings, or the astonishing performances by a deeply committed cast, the film is a remarkable achievement. It has many profound ideas, and it explores each one of them in detail, examining different generations of women not only navigating the challenges that come with being a mother, but the difficulties that arise through the process of discovering how quickly life can change. The entire film is enshrouded in a melancholic haze, which emphasizes the more complex aspects of these characters as they navigate a series of small moments that eventually accumulate into a volcanic eruption of pure emotion, from which many strong but disturbing conversations are conducted, questioning everything from identity and individuality to the sordid nature of the past, and its impact on the national psyche, both socially and mentally. Bad Living is a poignant and provocative psychological drama that takes aim at the very fundamental nature of human existence, weaving a compelling story of identity, as shown through the eyes of five women – and as one part of a pair of films, it does its part in establishing a firm foundation for a fascinating cinematic diptych.

(c) Image copyright: Midas Filmes