Some people talk of European cinema as if it is some kind of a monolith, or a method of film-making in itself. While it certainly isn’t, there is something in the cinema made here that is unique to the region, one that will find itself out of place anywhere else – its essence. Good film makers the world over who have sought inspiration from European classics know where to draw the line – one beyond which they’ll end up looking pretentious or even irrelevant. Even among Europe’s finest film makers, you will find they tend to relate mostly to their own native audience. But if I have to pick one film maker who can transcend regions and find himself at home anywhere in Europe when it comes to cinema, it will have to be the Swiss-born Alain Tanner.
Like in his 1983 classic, “Dans la Ville Blanche” [Eng. Title: In the White City] – I was actually in a dilemma where to even file it in the blog – here we have a Swiss director making a French film about a German (Swiss) sailor living in Portugal. I have seen only a handful of Tanner’s films to date – they’re not particularly easy to get hold of, but among those this one remains my favourite, pipping his earlier and more widely known gem, “Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000 “.
Paul, a German-Swiss sailor deserts ship upon reaching Lisbon – just like that. He walks around the city filming with his 8mm camera and sends the footage to his wife back home. In all his communications with his wife, he is honest, sometimes painfully so. Especially after he meets and falls in love with local waitress Rosa at the hotel where he’s staying. Paul doesn’t want to work, resolve whatever problems he has with his wife – it is obvious they still care about each other, or even settle down with the cute Rosa who only wants to see some kind of commitment from him. Paul has decided to take a vacation from everyday life itself, without quite becoming a hermit.
The storyline however tells us nothing of what’s in store for us. This is an intimate journey of a man in a state of crisis. We don’t know what he is looking for – by all probability he himself doesn’t. And neither is he particularly worried about it as he takes every minute as it comes. It is this vacuous ‘walkabout’ in an alien city with its fading charm, much like himself, that keeps us transfixed to the screen. It is a film about alienation as much as it is about a man’s hidden desire to do something ‘worthwhile’. Way ahead of its time – it looks at a Europe without frontiers, and contemplates a human condition that is thoroughly modern and relevant today. In the process, we’re left these haunting images of a Lisbon probably never seen before nor will ever be – the grainy 8mm stock used in these scenes give a nostalgic feel and abstract quality that so befits the film’s theme. Add to that we have a breathtaking jazz soundtrack by Jean-Luc Barbier, used sparingly but to magnificent effect. One could relate to Paul the protagonist, played by a very different looking Bruno Ganz (Der Himmel über Berlin – Wings of Desire). As also with the plain but beautiful waitress Rosa, played by leading Portuguese actress Teresa Madruga. I also loved the way Tanner forces you to get to grips with his pace to show us his world, his vision. If action-packed films are your thing, this one isn’t your cup of tea, but for those with curiosity and patience, this is as rewarding as films get. Needless to say, Highly Recommended Viewing..!