Teresa Villaverde –
Essay by Pamela Jahn
When it rains, it pours. Nowhere does this painful proverb seem to be as true as in the films of Teresa Villaverde. The accumulation of fateful events develops into stories that have the kind of dramatic urgency that is only rarely seen on the screen these days.
She stubbornly, delicately, resolutely and consistently rejects false images and beautified narratives, both in her filmmaking and in life in general. Her untiring interest for the people that society pushes into the gutters has led the Portuguese director to dedicate herself to characters and destinies from highly varying backgrounds and environments right since her debut A idade maior (1991) – people on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who she keeps on depicting in disconcerting portraits: among others the residents of a juvenile care home that refuse to obey (Os mutantes, 1998), young women who are degraded to become sex slaves (Transe, 2006), and time and again simple middle-class families that are threatening to break apart due to the inner and outer circumstances they find themselves in. But this does not mean that Villaverde's films are devoid of hope. Far from simple social critique, they address acute social problems without being judgmental, instead reflecting upon dominant views of life in an effortless way and then deconstructing them. Her weapon of choice is a very idiosyncratic, at times radical cinematic form, with which she rebels against the status quo as decisively as her characters.
You might think that for Villaverde the cinema is a place to become concerned. This is already evident in A idade maior, where she portrays a childhood in early 1970s Portugal. It is the time before the great revolution, when the dictatorial colonial regime is still desperately trying to defend an imaginary empire, while the adverse conditions back at home and the pressure on the country's own population are becoming increasingly obvious. The fact that Villaverde was one of the first artists who even dared address this topic as late as in 1991 demonstrates the extent to which Portugal was unwilling to confront the colonial war even long after the last acts of combat had ended. Representing the perspective of a new generation, she looks less closely at the historical events of the days, but more at the atmosphere surrounding them, and thereby contributes some powerful grieving work, where she uses the unsullied view of a young auteur to reflect upon the demise of what once was. Using long, calm scenes, which reflect the precious and sensitive images of memory, Villaverde follows her protagonist through everyday life, until one disaster literally follows another. In the meantime, many things are merely alluded to, as the director likes to leave plenty of space for us to reflect.
This special desire for us to draw our own conclusions was to a certain extent something she was born into in Lisbon in 1966 – as the daughter of the journalist Alberto Villaverde Cabral. After a short study trip to Prague as a scholar of the city's film school, she started her career in front of the camera. As an actress she could among other things be seen in A flor do mar (1986) by João Cesar Monteiro in a supporting role. She subsequently went on to become the assistant of Paulo Rocha and wrote screenplays together with João Canijo and José Alvaro Morais. She preferred this self-taught approach to filmmaking to a presumably more dry university education – a decision that turned out to be a lucky strike for both Portuguese and global cinema. For years, her films have been shown at the world's major international film festivals, and their pictorial power and unconventional narratives have not only regularly captured the audience's attention, but given rise to lively discussions. It is therefore all the more surprising that the dedicated director is still considered an insider tip beyond the festival circuit.
This might be due to the demure nature of Villaverde herself, who prefers to concentrate on her work, rarely gives interviews and instead lets her art speak for itself. On the other hand, her films are also tied to a rather delicate, unobtrusive gaze, which is influenced by the Portuguese Novo Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s and which tries to find new answers in the border between yesterday and tomorrow. Like in Colo, the latest film in the wonderful opus of Villaverde, which compared to her previous works at first (and only at first) seems a little more gentle, rounded and factual. But even when tackling an apparently ordered form, the silent observer is quite in her element, using well-considered, tableau-like compositions and long camera moves to tell the story of how a middle-class family consisting of a father, a mother and a 17-year-old daughter threaten to capitulate as a result of the financial crisis. Together, they each try to find their own way out of the entanglements that are gradually ensnaring them. In the end, nothing is probable, but a lot is possible. And here, again, is the freedom that the director entrusts to her protagonists and her audience.
An important element for the success of the difficult balancing act between cool observation and poetic imagination, which Villaverde repeatedly attempts in her daring mise-en-scène, is the contribution of the actors, who depict her failed, tormented or collapsing characters. Two actresses particularly catch our eyes: Maria de Medeiros and Ana Moreira, both of whom make repeated appearances in Villaverde's filmography. While Medeiros can be seen in a supporting role as an erratic sweetheart in A idade maior, the entire breadth of her acting skills can already be admired in the director's following film, Três irmãos. In the gloomy family drama, she plays the sister who is suffering from the awkward family setup in a male-dominated household, whose unjust balance collapses entirely when her mother, who has been tormented by her blind father, in a final show of strength commits suicide. Medeiros gives her character everything that she had previously denied her famous role as the sweet Fabienne in Pulp Fiction. Often speechless, with a fearful look and delicate gestures, she permanently hovers above the abyss, confident like a fallen angel, who desperately looks for comfort, and ends up being punished with total isolation.
We are faced with a completely different character with Ana Moreira's confident Andreia, who has long come to terms with solitude. In Os mutantes, she embodies a young pregnant woman, who grows up in a home for free-roaming and abused teenagers in Lisbon, from where she breaks out repeatedly to prove to herself and the world that nothing can get her down. And even Sonia, the young Russian woman, who Moreira lends her body and soul in Transe, rebels to the very end against a life of slavery, where she has resigned herself to the fact that there is no way out. But what still drives her is an iron will to retain a spark of her own identity in spite of all adversity – like a proof that she was also once a part of this world, and that she has spent time here loving, living and suffering. This motif of self-preservation unites all three women and symbolises the opus of Villaverde, which is driven by a sensual and at the same time intense force, and where the wilderness of despair is just as much at home as the soberness of truth.
"What is love?" asks the child's voice at the end of Tres Irmãos, when the film seals the fate of Maria in the last shot of the film. The answer: "Love must be somewhere." In the films of Teresa Villaverde it can be found in the boldest forms, and only those who are willing to venture out with the director to find it will be rewarded accordingly.