’Non’, o a vã glória de mandar – No, or the Vain Glory of Command

Portugal, Spain, France, 1990

Directed by Manoel de Oliveira

With Luís Miguel Cintra (Lieutenant Cabrita/Viriato/Don João), Diogo Dória (Private Manuel/a Lusitanian warrior/Don João’s cousin), Miguel Guilherme (Private Salvador/a Lusitanian warrior/an Alcácer warrior), Luís Lucas (Corporal Brito/a Lusitanian warrior/an Alcácer warrior)

Soldiers on a truck chat as they ride to a base in an African colony ravaged by war. It is not the small talk, made up of big complaints, about assignments, routines, flaws and lacks of the military organization. It is not the litany of personal tales and feelings. And it goes beyond the casual remarks about the enemy and the context. It is a conversation, serious and long-winded, about the politics and history of Portuguese patriotism.

The shooting of the speaking soldiers cannot be more precise and baffling: the camera stands opposite to them and they seem to look straight at it, but the gaze, the attitudes, the impact are more subtle and less systematic than this casual impression suggests. It is as if the camera is building a peculiar space where the camera does not fully relate to the actors while the performance looks like it is made in another dimension. It never ends: the trucks keeps riding, the arguments keep getting exchanged. And other, totally different images, are slid in the montage, reconstructions of key historical events entering without transition into the present-day narrative. The war adventure becomes an exploration of ideas and visions and of a revered past, the road trip is a walk down the collective memory lane and a wandering of the mind.

From present to past, from one battle to another, men keep struggling with fate and purpose

The trick is allowed by a careful characterization: there is an embodiment of antagonistic swagger, private Salvador, eager to brag about his patriotism and Portuguese patriotism at large, challenging others who may doubt, reasoning on the simplest and bluntest terms, then there is a far more cautious, inquisitive, fatalistic mind, Private Manuel, then there is the perfect antagonist to Salvador, the man ready to express doubt and anger, Corporal Brito, and last but not least, the key figure of the film as he patiently replies to the others and extends the conversation into ever more philosophical and scholarly territories, Lieutenant Cabrita, who used to read history at the university back home.

The actors playing these men of war are cleverly used in the period set pieces the film displays: faces move through the centuries as easily as the minds of the present-day characters can get engrossed in their musings. It is as if men cannot avoid relating and identifying with past figures, unable, unwilling to get over things past, as if history was to be experienced again and again, a pattern hard to escape.

Four moments of the long history of Portugal are highlighted. First there is the struggle against the troops of Rome led by Viriato, the chief of the local Celtic population, the Lusitanians, ending with his defeat in 139 BC. Then there is the battle won by King João I, founder of the Avis dynasty, against the king of Spain in 1385, enabling Portugal to stay independent but at the same time thwarting the project of a unification of the Iberian peninsula’s political entities. Inevitably, the film moves on to the geographical explorations, or discoveries, Portugal made during the 15th and 16th centuries, shot this time on vaguest and more symbolic terms, and not through a vivid, traditional cinematic realism reconstructing the past, an equivalent of the poetic, mythic, fantasist views written by Luís Vaz de Camões, the 16th century soldier and poet who penned the “Lusiads”, one of the most important works ever in Portuguese literature, an epic meditation on what Portugal accomplished through the exploration of the world. And finally comes the tragic death in 1578 of moody and dreamy King Sebastian in a battle in Alcácer, in Morocco, which sparked a succession crisis and the end of the Avis dynasty who turned a small corner of Europe into an efficient and solid monarchy and a bold world power present in four continents.

Even once they have reached their camp, the conversation keeps going among the soldiers. It does not last long, for the lieutenant gets a message ordering his platoon to make a foray in the savanna. The operation is a disaster, as the Portuguese troops come under attack. The scene is full of sound and smoke, but is more a basic shooting of a war event than a truly elaborate, dramatic, thrilling, overpowering display of cinematic skills – the only moment of this war movie that truly reflects the genre’s visual tropes and expectations feels more perfunctory than thoughtful. To be fair, this underwhelming result is not a complete surprise, as the episodes reconstructing the past are also less than impressive and detailed, not quite the flourish and daring the audience can expect (the big surprise, and real embarrassment, has come with the segment about the discoveries and inspired by Camões, which is not at all convincing but clumsy, a bizarre effort at eroticism and poetry that is awfully contrived and ridiculous). The import of the scene is to alter the course of the narrative arc of the lieutenant: badly wounded, Cabrita is evacuated. The last minutes of the film take place in a military hospital somewhere in the colony, as a physician struggles to keep Cabrita alive and as Cabrita’s stream of consciousness flows back and forth through his visions and ideas on the national history. He eventually dies, the same day, April 25, 1974, as fellow soldiers, back in Portugal, bring down the authoritarian and far-right government, the Estado Novo, set up from 1928, by António de Oliveira Salazar.

Is it not ironic? Or genuinely poignant? Simply absurd, perhaps. The man who tried, through his speech, to articulate a vision of the Portuguese history, to find a meaning his comrades could grasp, has been killed by the preposterous and idle effort to keep a colonial empire and cannot witness his nation reinventing a democratic regime. He was aware how truth is elusive, a mystery hard to crack up: indeed, he repeats the same quote that has haunted him through his public musings as death is gripping his body. Can history ever make sense? Can Portugal be understood?

This war movie which so consciously skipped the rules of the genre, which cleverly refused to be fully what it purported to be, which compelled a bemused audience to deal with other battles than the one promised by the background, driving them through centuries and complex debates, is a sad meditation whose point of view is hard to define.

(By the way, this fits with a wider pattern: Manoel de Oliveira has already demonstrated his ability to tweak and transcend a film form to offer fresh perspectives, challenging the purpose of a project to question the filmmaking act and the notion of representation – thus in his 1963 feature “O acto da primavera – Rite of Spring”, de Oliveira has worked on the material he discovered perchance, a folklore tradition dealing with the Passion of the Christ, to build his own vision that strays from the rules of the documentary he purported to made and create a unique storytelling that magnifies and colors an original performance).

It is not obvious that the film does reflect any political view of the director: he may be more interested in the specific, personal experience of Cabrita, while keeping the man and his ideas at a distance (that odd space the camera has created while the actors strove with their existence) – de Oliveira captures a state of mind but he may not be adhering to what it expresses. The quest for a meaning, and specifically the idea of a national grandeur that did not reach its full potential, may be a futile effort, even as Portuguese are so eager to justify their actions and define their identity.

From the first quote to the final, chaotic and bleak vision of Lieutenant Cabrita, conflating the battlegrounds of 1385 and 1578, the film is shot under the influence of Antônio Vieira. A 17th century Jesuit missionary, preacher, and writer who spent most of his life in Brazil but traveled often to his native Portugal, he fiercely defended the rights of the Indians, especially against their enslavement and then the encroachment of the colonial settlers (but pointedly failed to condemn the African slavery). He also slammed the Inquisition while developing a personal, millenerian interpretation of the Portuguese history. He is still held as one of the greatest writers of the Portuguese literature and a central religious figure.

One of his comments gives the film its title, but what meaning does it have in the film, how could it be interpreted even as it is screamed onscreen in the uncanny, final battleground? Is it fate which tragically told no to the ambitions of Portugal, a depressing view of inevitable but unfair failure, even as Portugal can be praised for widening Europe’s cultural and geographical horizons? Or is it not evidence that to command history and men is truly a vain effort? Is it the lieutenant who nails it, or is it not the director who has the more relevant attitude, witnessing how men failed and letting the audience judge for themselves? The film may not be really a sweeping and strongly articulated meditation on political and human disasters but actually is exploring the malaise and thoughts of men thrown into another political and human drama, eventually suggesting that history is just the fuel for a real, deep, unassailable melancholy, viewed as a key element of the Portuguese state of mind and identity. Battles are lost, significance and fatum are cryptic, absurdity prevails, and what men can still hold on to is that pensive state of sadness making life moving.

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