Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Spanish Cinema Now ’11: José y Pilar

Forget one percenters. José Saramago, the first Portuguese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his considerably younger Spanish wife, Pilar del Río, must represent tenth-of-percenters in their respective countries. They are also avowed class warriors. It is a nice hypocrisy if you can afford and clearly they could, based on the evidence of Miguel Gonçalves Mendes’s hagiographic documentary, José y Pilar (trailer here), Portugal’s official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which logically enough screens tomorrow during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2011 Spanish Cinema Now.

Saramago passed away in 2010, but when Gonçalves began filming in 2006, he was still quite a spry old-timer. Their friends constantly tell viewers what a storybook romance the two have and indeed some of that comes out when Saramago’s health begins to fail during the film’s second act. However, in the idyllic opening, it appears Saramago really just loves being a public intellectual who does not have to sweat the details of his touring schedule, whereas del Río loves being president of Saramago, Inc. Actually, it is a private foundation that must have saved them a bundle in estate taxes. She also makes a big deal about being called “Presidenta” in its feminine form, which gets to be a tiresome conversation the second or third time around.

Saramago’s admirers may very well enjoy listening to the tart-tongued old devil grousing about the house. However, it probably does not serve his literary legacy particularly well, largely presenting his work as a series of sarcastic aphorisms aimed at the God he rejected. It is also often difficult to reconcile the man of comfort with his Communist ideology. We watch scene after scene of the laureate refusing to inscribe personalizations at his book signings. Whatever happened to “from each according to his abilities?”

There are several witty one-liners sprinkled throughout the film, but Gonçalves and editor Cláudita Rita Oliveira were clearly too over-awed by their subjects, allowing repetitive sequences to pad J y P just beyond the two hour mark. Similarly sentimental reasons also probably explain why Portugal chose the documentary as their Oscar contender, when they could have also selected the late Raúl Ruiz’s elegant masterwork Mysteries of Lisbon instead. Given it was co-produced by the Spanish Pedro Almodóvar and Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, it is also a bit surprising it met the Academy’s stringent national purity qualifications. Evidently, if it is Iberian, it is close enough for Oscar.

Gonçalves certainly had intimate access to the power couple, but he is clearly not particularly interested in engaging viewers who are not already on their side of the mountain. As a result, despite some moments here and there, J y P should not be a high priority for Spanish Cinema Now patrons or Academy voters. It screens tomorrow (12/14) and Friday (12/16) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the FSLC’s longest running annual film series.