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Take It to the Streets

Centro histórico (2012)

International Film Festival Rotterdam

"I have been involved in this kind of thing before. It never works." Ahead of the Edinburgh screening of "Centro histórico," Pedro Costa's comment could have been about the dubious nature of portmanteau films; in this case four stories set in the Portuguese city of Guimarães by Aki Kaurismäki, Mr. Costa, Victor Erice and Manoel de Oliveira. Afterward, and filtered through an idiosyncratic Q. & A. with the director, it could just as easily have been a sign of Mr. Costa's professed wish to keep faith with an uncompromisingly political cinema and reach audiences who may not be receptive to his methods. Either way, it surely echoed the sentiments of the film's backers, who having commissioned it to promote the city's status as a 2012 European Capital of Culture and received a work deemed unreleasable, have now cast it onto the waters of the world's film festivals while hoping for the best.

In rough order of falling temperature: Mr. Kaurismäki's section is a typically droll canter through an evening in the life of cafe-owning sad sack (Ilkka Koivula), whose menu runs only to soup. Mr. de Oliveira follows a horde of tourists furiously photographing Guimarães's actual historic center, where the statues remain above the fray. Mr. Erice builds an oral history of increasing theatricality from the memories of workers at long-shuttered textile factory. And Mr. Costa's contribution involves Cape Verdean actor Ventura, trapped in a purgatorial elevator for a near-impenetrable discussion with a soldier made-up to resemble a child's toy and several unseen speakers, a debate rooted in Portugal's 1974 revolution and during which hardly an on-screen line is uttered.

As a civic project, "Centro histórico" may have been ill-starred from the moment those four particular signatures were dry on the contracts. Unleashing disparate directors on location-themed projects isn't an inherently bad idea; this quartet was never going to produce anything as frothy as "Paris, je t'aime," but even that film knew enough to rope in some names worth a raised eyebrow. "Centro histórico" swings to the opposite end of the scale, with two of the four directors contributing irreverent sketches of the city in question (and inevitably in Mr. Kaurismäki's case, an outline of himself too), while the others tackle social issues and revolutionary history in characteristically sparse and didactic ways. Mr. Costa in particular deals less with the city itself than with blood long since soaked into the soil on which it stands.

Mr. Costa's segment brings some other issues to a head too, not least the general position of major figures in non-Anglophone national cinemas whose tastes and instincts fit poorly with mainstream commercial pressures. In conversation, the director expanded on his issues with David Fincher and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a topic that surfaced recently in a Mubi.com interview and provoked some discussion. The impression after hearing about it from the man himself is that artistic integrity is usually tied to an active contrarian streak; not for nothing did the director name his grueling episode "Sweet Exorcist" after Curtis Mayfield.

The cherry on top of the discussion was the news that "Sweet Exorcist" was not even made for "Centro histórico" but is instead part of a completely different film, a work in progress that will continue the politically charged collaboration with Ventura and involve a character trapped in an asylum. The chain of events by which the producers came to graft a separate part-work from a director of Mr. Costa's austere and declamatory skills into the middle of their cultural jamboree will make a nice anecdote in somebody's book, once the relevant witnesses have regained their composure.


Opens on July 19 in Manhattan.

Four related films: “Sweet Exorcism,” written and directed by Pedro Costa; director of photography, Mr. Costa and Leonardo Simões; “O Conquistador Conquistado,” written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira; edited by Valérie Loiseleux; “Vidros Partidos,” written and directed by Victor Erice; director of photography, Valentín Álvarez; “Tavern Man,” written, directed and edited by Aki Kaurismaki; director of photography, Timo Salminen. Music by Pedro Santos; produced by Rodrigo Areias. In English and Portuguese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is not rated.

“Sweet Exorcism” WITH: Ventura (Ventura).

“O Conquistador Conquistado” WITH: Marcos Carreira and Kristina Zurauskaite (Tourists) and Ricardo Trêpa (Tour Guide).

“Vidros Partidos” WITH: Judite Araujo, Maria Fatima Braga Lima, Arlindo Fernandes, Filomena Gigante, Cruz José, Amandio Martins, Henriqueta Oliveira, Gonçalves Rosa, Pedro Santos and Manuel Silva (Factory Workers) and Valdemar Santos (Valdemar).

“Tavern Man” WITH: Ilkka Koivula (Barman).


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