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Elegant Perversions: The Cinema of João César Monteiro

September 18, 2010 - October 24, 2010

Recollections of the Yellow House, September 18

“I don’t know how to give advice, and I detest respectability,” firmly states a character in João César Monteiro’s God’s Wedding, a suitable statement from one of cinema’s greatest iconoclasts. Combining a minimal, almost reverential approach to filming everyday life with an unblinking embrace of all things erotic and obscene, Monteiro’s filmography—spanning the late 1970s to 2002—is now being recognized as one of postwar European cinema’s most intriguing and challenging.

Raised in an anti-clerical, anti-Salazar family during Portugal’s dictatorship, Monteiro worked as a film critic before turning to directing in his late thirties. Early films like Trails (1978) and Silvestre (1981) reworked Portuguese myths, culture, and history through a highly formalized approach to storytelling, while mid-career features such as Hovering over Water (1986) began questioning the very concept of cinematic narrative. With 1989’s Recollections of the Yellow House, however, Monteiro entered a world entirely his own, often compared more to literary sources like Céline, Bataille, Dostoevsky, Burroughs, and de Sade. Prostitutes, outcasts, the embittered, and the unapologetically scatological were his heroes and heroines, their “abnormal” obsessions and illicit desires chronicled against the becalmed, quiet beauty of everyday Lisbon (beyond the madness, Monteiro’s films are also about, and of, that atmospheric city). Pointedly, Monteiro treated both the workaday and the perverse with the same controlled, elegant, even holy approach, giving a leafy Lisbon park, a seedy brothel, a fish-vendor, and a collector of women’s pubic hairs the exact same wondrous, transcendental gaze, as if Carl Dreyer had returned to remake a John Waters script. Here the grotesque and the sublime go hand in hand, the intellectual and the base (by the end, it’s hard to tell which is which), all presented with the grace of an artist—and a cinema—that refuses to be anything but itself.

Jason Sanders
Associate Film Notes Writer

Saturday, September 18, 2010
6:30 p.m. Recollections of the Yellow House
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 1989) (122 mins). A melancholy, middle-aged, natural-born tramp obsesses over sex, desire, and his landlady’s daughter in this Portuguese merging of Chaplin and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. “Monteiro sidesteps psychodrama to produce something altogether cooler, more thought-provoking, and more perverse.”—Time Out (122 mins)

Sunday, September 19, 2010
4:00 p.m. Silvestre
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 1981). Two young sisters are seduced by a villain in Monteiro’s luridly designed early film, staged with the deep colors of medieval religious paintings. "A masterpiece of faux naïveté, Silvestre overflows with miraculous events and wonderment at the misery and violence of the world.”—Film Comment (118 mins)

Friday, September 24, 2010
7:00 p.m. Trails
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 1978). The fables and folklore—and modern politics—of rural Portugul are brought to life in this storytelling travelogue moving from Tras-Os-Montes to the Alentejo. (116 mins)

Saturday, September 25, 2010
8:00 p.m. God’s Comedy
João César Monteiro (Portugal/France/Italy, 1995). Obsession, sensual pleasure, and ice cream form the unholy trinity of Monteiro’s grand statement on the human condition. This monument to cinephilia suggests an unholy alliance between Straub, Tati, de Sade, and a nondescript porn director, under the direction of a dandy who only cares about two things: pleasure and vice."—Film Comment (163 mins)

Sunday, October 3, 2010
6:30 p.m. The Last Dive
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 1992). Saved from suicide, a young man joins an older ex-sailor on a nocturnal ramble through the streets, bars, and brothels of Lisbon. “The spirit of Fellini looms over this ribald urban folktale, but its mercurial cinematic inspiration is Monteiro’s own.” —The New Yorker (88 mins)

Thursday, October 7, 2010
7:00 p.m. Hovering over Water
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 1986). A stranger with an American accent interrupts a woman’s summertime return to the Portuguese seaside. “This is the cinema of underreaction—long and tolerant takes, with the camera happy to stay still and watch as a fish is sliced and served or a bedtime story is told.”—The New Yorker (150 mins)

Saturday, October 9, 2010
8:10 p.m. God’s Wedding
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 1999). More comic and sexual misadventures of our elderly Buster Keaton-like hero, João de Deus. “With a serenely riotous yet self-deprecating comic restraint, Monteiro lightly sketches the abyss between the aristocrat and the bum, piety and hedonism, and this world and the beyond, over which he gracefully flits.”—The New Yorker (150 mins)

Sunday, October 10, 2010
6:10 p.m. Snow White
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 2000). Monteiro strips away the image, and leaves only words, in this radical adaptation of Swiss author Robert Walser’s notorious work. (75 mins)

Thursday, October 21, 2010
7:00 p.m. Come and Go
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 2003). Monteiro’s last film, a blissful merging of sunny Lisbon parks, dark rooms, conversations, arguments, and inappropriate sexual obsession. “A wave goodbye, with the middle finger extended.”—James Quandt. “A quintessential Monteiro film, which means it is as idiosyncratic as a William Burroughs novel.”—Screen Daily. (175 mins)

Sunday, October 24, 2010
7:00 p.m. The Hips of J.W.
João César Monteiro (Portugal, 1997). Inspired by a postcard from critic Serge Daney and dedicated to filmmakers Straub-Huillet, Monteiro’s spare tale of a theater director, John Wayne, and freedom re-appropriates Strindberg, Beckett, Bresson, and Pasolini. "A kind of cinephile transubstantiation orgy in which thought becomes flesh becomes celluloid." —Film Comment (128 mins)

This retrospective was organized by Haden Guest, Harvard Film Archive. We also acknowledge the assistance of Rita Sá Marques, Instituto Camoes Portugal; Insituto de Cine; Paulo Cunha Alves, Consul General of Portugal in Boston; Boston Portuguese Festival; and BAMcinématek; and at UC Berkeley, Portuguese Studies Program/Institute of European Studies and Department of Spanish and Portuguese.