Cannes 2023 review: Légua (Filipa Reis & João Miller Guerra)

“The filmmakers use such moments of still life with persuasive efficiency, at times revealing as much in a single shot as an entire narrative scene with animate characters.”

Moments of observation accentuate the mysteries of Légua, frames of exact composition, arresting in choreographed domesticity. Each still life renders a moment of the meticulous everyday within a countryside manor house, its interiors waiting in unending contemplation. The owners are absent in perpetuity though every room is prepared for their homecoming, crisp linens fitted tightly to the beds and fresh fruits gathered in bowls. Few clocks tick upon aged walls but time is very much progressing with the soft breezes that ruffle sheer curtains through open windows. Dust flecks drift in the daylight that enters, as suspended as the home remains, one season into another.

Emília (Fátima Soares) is the senior housekeeper charged with maintaining the old manor, a responsibility held for years. Her tasks are as constant and routine as her stubborn loyalty. The younger Ana (Carla Maciel) supports her elderly friend but is the de facto head housekeeper in practice. Her husband Victor (Paulo Calatré) and teenage daughter Mónica (Vitória Nogueira da Silva) join her at the estate, but he leaves for seasonal work abroad. Though he asks her to accompany him, Ana chooses to stay, and the separation is challenged by headstrong Mónica: “You’re taking care of a haunted house.” With Emília’s myeloma diagnosis, it’s clear Ana accepts the responsibility of a different caretaking even though her approach feels cold, toiled with detachment. Her hospice care is delivered with the same utilitarian precision as the cleaning of a kitchen. Maciel is keenly engrossing as Ana, though this central figure is slightly underdeveloped in narrative action and reasoning. In Légua, observation only goes so far as character study, and intentions, while purposefully enigmatic, veer into vacantness.

And yet the relationships between the women and the manor echo its corridors with individual truths. Her steadfast servitude intertwined with the monotony of allegiance, Emília pledges faith to an absent family of landlords. They will never return, and her ritualistic devotion will never be reciprocated. Mónica embraces the fleeting desires of youth, diving into discovery that teeters along selfish peripheries, and leaves the estate and countryside behind. In the middle, though, Ana recognizes the finite limitations of her work and life. Perhaps she understands the folly of tradition and how the past will not return to the manor. Her solitude in the space kindles energy; her sexuality emerges and her compassion swells. As Emília breaches the edges of mortality and Mónica ventures into the pulse of the city, Ana attempts to inhabit the uninhabited with ambiguous decisions and gestures.

Directors Reis and Guerra (who co-wrote Légua with José Filipe Costa, Sara Morais and Letícia Simões) clasp the three stories at different points in the same line, a continuum stretched between them. When the camera cuts away to peer across one empty room into a second before resting its gaze through an open doorway into a third, the perspective extends across invisible generations, lives lived, and dreams forgotten, the old manor house a constant. The filmmakers use such moments of still life with persuasive efficiency, at times revealing as much in a single shot as an entire narrative scene with animate characters. While these are not exactly pillow shots in the sense of Yasujiro Ozu, they heighten the beauty and mystery of the storytelling. They position the manor itself as an intriguing counterpoint to the housekeepers, articulating its graceful but departing memories. The women remain ambiguous if intriguing portraits. There is certainty as Légua concludes, however: while the estate house may no longer need custodians, those who traverse its halls long for care, from self or another, in each passing season.