“Director Susana Nobre offers a wry, intimate journey through the ordinariness of one era in a life to observe how these battles crumble our defenses, breaking apart our barriers into small moments to reassemble.”
Rabat is an ancient imperial city of Morocco, its name derived from the Arabic word ribāṭ, meaning fortification or retreat. The impenetrable walls uncovered in Cidade Rabat are not those of historic stone ramparts against an unrelenting frontier, however. There’s a different uncertainty at its center, one built upon emotional retreat and entrenchment. When Helena, mother, daughter, and film professional at the cusp of middle age, suffers loss, the walls of solitude and distance, assembled as protection, crack. Director Susana Nobre offers a wry, intimate journey through the ordinariness of one era in a life to observe how these battles crumble our defenses, breaking apart our barriers into small moments to reassemble.
Cidade Rabat is a film of processes and processing from its first frames. Dark and deliberate, obscured corridors and doorways of an apartment are revealed as a voiceover catalogs the lives of the inhabitants on the other side of its walls, concise obituaries of the unseen. Light passes through grates and gears, particles floating in the haze, the building elevator an everyday beast visible only in angles and flashes. This could be a mausoleum; this could be a factory. Maybe it’s both. The inventory of full lives against a backdrop of empty interiors introduces concepts of minutiae and memory that recur throughout the film, though never quite as alluring or ethereal. The compilations of Helena, wandering at its core, are more modest and worldly.
Helena (portrayed with an undercurrent of befuddlement by Raquel Castro) works in film production when she is not caring for her elderly mother or transferring her tween daughter back and forth to her ex. She has an insignificant boyfriend of sorts, an aloof sister and a flaky director rounding out her days, but nothing feels concrete. While visiting her over lunch, Helena watches as her mother sorts through a pile of photographs or postcards, collected remnants of time and place, and tears them in halves. The dissociation, then resolution to release the past, is striking to Helena, perhaps because she has no real permanence to her present. She only has a series of reflexive, if mechanical, manoeuvres populating her time. It’s life as a spreadsheet.
When her mother passes away, this order folds into the bureaucracy of death with all its dreary logistics. Procedural mourning intersects with the monotony certain to Helena’s days, underscoring the joyless routines of her personal and professional calendar. She begins to numb herself. Drunken mistakes are made but the setback gives way to discovery, and that’s the heart of Cidade Rabat. Director and writer Nobre softly signals light through unexpected fulfilments, with skilled observation. There’s wistful melancholy in her approach to Helena, never scrutiny. The camera is calm, considering situations that might provoke frustration or anger with grace and patience instead. This is a small film, somewhat detached from its arresting opening, but still admirable in its frank chronicling of common tragedies. Helena finds that adversity can frame an unexpected pathway towards renewal. In Cidade Rabat, the fortress must be razed through grief, however carefully, and its remnants reimagined.
(c) Image copyright: Paulo Menezes