Remember how the old set-up line: “that was no lady?” Well, Maria Eduarda is not Carlos da Maias’s wife and he is not laughing. Unfortunately, the prominent society doctor was born in scandal and scandal will continue to find him. Of course, he also does more than his share to contribute to his family’s ill karma in João Botelho’s adaptation of Eça de Queiroz’s Nineteenth Century Portuguese realist novel, Os Maias: Scenes from Romantic Life (trailer here), which screens as part of Panorama Europe 2016.
Evidently, in late 1800’s Lisbon, any wife left unattended for too long was considered fair game. At least, this seems to be the attitude of Dr. Carlos da Maias and his rakish companion, João da Ega. Frankly, da Maias really ought to know better, as the only son of Pedro da Maias, who took his own life after his wife absconded with a Parisian adventurer. He was raised by his grandfather, the illustrious Afonso da Maias (who had warned his son not to get involved with a notorious slaver’s daughter), as we see during the extended black-and-white prologue.
Despite his affection for the righteous old man, the grandson does not follow his example. While Ega chases after a government minister’s wife, Maias commences an affair with an ever so willing Condessa. Quickly tiring of the countess, Maias turns his attention towards Maria Eduarda the wife of a Brazilian business man with a somewhat iffy reputation. Unfortunately, Maias falls for Eduarda harder than is safe for a roguish ladies’ man, putting himself in a socially awkward position.
Add to that about a dozen subplots and barrel full of Oscar Wilde-style barbed witticisms to get a sense of the tone of Os Maias. Although its source novel is broadly lumped in with Stendahlian Realism, Botelho deliberately rejects strict verisimilitude in favor of high stylization. Much like Manoel de Oliveira’s The Satin Slipper, Os Maias employs conspicuously painted backdrops and settings to emphasize the film’s sound stage confines. The was a little bit of that sort of expressive theatricality in Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon as well, so maybe this is just something they go for in Portugal.
Regardless, the scandal and snark are all so rich, viewers will get sucked into this irreproachably classy soap opera, despite the artificial trappings. As Afonso da Maias, João Perry anchors the film with superhuman gravitas. He just personifies tragic dignity and bitter regret. Graciano Dias’s Carlos da Maias comes across as somewhat vapid, but that sort of works within the dramatic context. However, Pedro Inês work as Ega is a rare example of a performance that has to be seen in its entirety to be fully appreciated. While initially, he is just insufferable, the shtick takes on a “crazy like a fox” quality over time. Once he starts to click, he becomes the sly, acerbic dynamo driving the film.
Panorama Europe is screening the official festival cut of Os Maias, but there is also a longer director’s cut making the rounds with an additional fifty minutes of gossip and innuendo (presumably some of that is covered by the irregular voice-overs in the “short” one hundred thirty-nine-minute version). The Botelho’s full edit might be even better, but the festival cut is still quite a lot of fun. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys big, chewy, slightly salacious literary dramas, Os Maias screens this Tuesday (5/10) at Bohemia National Hall and Saturday the 21st at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of this year’s Panorama Europe.