Reviewing omnibus films, in which the component parts came from different directors, can be a tricky job because the decision needs to be made whether to review those contributions separately, or to take a helicopter view and treat a film which is being packaged as a feature, as a feature. "Centro Historico," which opened Out of Competition in the XXI sidebar of the Rome Film Festival, poses no such dilemma: the four films it contains are almost as different from one another as it possible to be, and so attempting any kind of synergistic look at the whole would be kind of a nonsense. Indeed, to the unprepared (or those without handy press notes), aside from language (Portuguese), the common thread may be difficult to discern: in fact these four films are part of a wider project showcasing Guimaraes, the founding city of Portugal during its year as European capital of culture. The project's producers asked various distinctive filmmakers "What stories does Guimaraes have to tell us?" and then sent them on their way. The results, if this sampler of four is anything to go by, are to say the least, mixed.
"Tavern Man" - Aki Kaurismaki
Sweet enough, but distinctly studenty, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's contribution is an amiable, almost wordless tragicomedy featuring a waiter (Kaurismaki go-to guy Ilkka Koivula) in a downtrodden cafe in the town's old centre. He opens the bar, serves drinks to a couple of equally uncommunicative regulars and puts on the "soup," i.e. he throws some dusty-looking leaves into a pot of boiling water. Outside, he scrawls "soup" on the chalkboard and waits, while customers file into the popular-looking restaurant down the road with its long menu of daily specials. He chucks some salted fish into the pot too. Still no one comes. Later he goes to meet a bus with an armful of red roses, but whoever he's waiting for doesn't arrive. He either goes ballroom dancing, or thinks about it, and at the end of the day, nothing has changed. The lead actor's expressively hangdog face is sufficiently craggy and careworn to justify the long periods we spend looking at it, but really this says very little about Guimaraes to us, and feels very safe -- Kaurismaki on bittersweet, quirky autopilot. [B-]
As safe and unambitious as Kaurismaki's contribution may have been, but oh, how we longed for its unpretentious embrace after about ten minutes of this segment from Pedro Costa. Though it starts promisingly, actually beautifully, with a series of pictorially staged and lit tableaux of people running through the woods at night, crying out to each other, it inexplicably then moves to a single, tiny location, the inside of an elevator, in which an old man, Ventura (a regular Costa collaborator), in striped pajamas, shares with a statue-like guard whose skin is sprayed with metallic paint. And for what seems roughly twenty minutes longer than forever, they stay there, seldom moving, mouths closed but apparently having a conversation of sorts in voiceover, or are those whispered voices in one or the other's mind? Don't worry, you will very quickly cease to care, as the half-remembered memories and fragments of revolutionary philosophy quickly become meaningless in their enigmatic monotony. In some moments it does evoke Beckett, as have previous Costa films, but it's an endurance test for even the most dedicated of fans. [D+]
"Broken Windows" - Victor Erice
Almost quaking with relief at being released from the last segment, we go into the film's most successful, by quite some distance. Victor Erice takes a semi-documentary approach to his short, but finds beautiful, evocative shots and insightful portraits nonetheless. The story here is of a huge factory, once the biggest textile factory in Europe that was in continuous operation for over a century before competition from Asia forced its closure and abandonment (the broken windows of the title). But on the wall hangs a huge photograph of the cavernous canteen, filled with workers on their lunch break many decades ago. It forms the literal and figurative backdrop against which a series of people recount to the camera their stories of working in the factory -- many stories are of hardship, but always tempered with a kind of acceptance, and a sorrow that the place, no matter how much misery it represented, had to close. The portraits he draws of these people are tremendously human, and the whole film stands as one of the most eloquent comments on the effects of industrial shutdown that we've seen. [A-]
"The Conquered Conqueror" - Manoel de Oliveira
A slight, and rather silly piece to close with, "The Conquered Conqueror" is the kind of short film that actually feels like it has too little story for its brief running time, but then, the director is 103 years old, so perhaps we need to cut it some slack. A tour group visits a monument atop which sits a statue of a conquistador. They take pictures. I guess we should have included a spoiler alert somewhere there, because really, that's all that happens, though the voiceover does try to convince us that there's something profound going on. Frankly, we didn't get it -- the point being made seemed pretty cliche -- and the only thing that saves this segment from a lower grade is that it is mercifully short. [C]