Sometimes the most difficult kind of review to write is one for a film that’s full of good intentions; a film that’s never outright hateful or anything like that, but lacking or floundering when it comes to certain decisions at a script or direction level. In short: the mediocre message movie. When it comes to José Barahona’s I Was in Lisbon and Remembered You, the nagging problems aren’t so much to do with the direction (bar one major thing, but we’ll get to that), but instead the screenplay he wrote based on a novel by author Luiz Ruffato.
This Portuguese-Brazilian co-production takes place in both Portugal’s capital and Cataguases, a city in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. Protagonist Sérgio (Paulo Azevedo) greets us with a straight-to-camera opening tale of woe, before regaling how his initially happy life in Brazil led to a lacking one in Portugal. Back in Brazil, he married a beautiful woman named Noemi (Amanda Fontoura) and they had a child together, before mental illness took its toll and Noemi was institutionalized. Their child is subsequently taken away from both parents.
The struggle with low-paid work while trying to provide the necessary contributions towards the care of Noemi and his child has Sérgio at a low, but talk of how Brazilians are finding a lot of work in Portugal has him interested. His vague plan: earn enough in Portugal for a while to be able to come back and make a killing with the exchange rate. It turns out the tales of success were more tall tales, though, as he finds himself the victim of endless bureaucratic nonsense regarding visas and papers, while only being able to find a number of badly paid jobs. Meanwhile, the idealistic man develops a relationship with prostitute Sheila (Renata Ferraz), whose own misfortunes see Sérgio crossing paths with her sinister employers.
As a commentary on the very real phenomenon of the 1990s where many Brazilians emigrated to Lisbon, as though it were some El Dorado-esque haven, the film is well-meaning and certainly has a few isolated scenes that hit a raw emotional nerve; the tragedy of Sérgio is genuinely very touching and upsetting at times. I shall avoid spoilers regarding the narrative specifics of his various plights, but when it comes to broader moments, one hardly needs familiarity with the state of Portugal’s economy to find something like the following line hard-hitting: “We only live to work for a low wage, then we pay the bills and it’s all gone.”
It’s with everyone surrounding Sérgio that the cracks emerge, particularly the lone female characters. Before Noemi’s very public breakdown (a naked walk through a public fountain in the middle of the night), her defining characteristic is pretty much just that she’s beautiful. Mere minutes after her introduction, we’re given her “fall from grace,” and while it’s undeniably sad what happens with her, the characterisation is very thinly-sketched.
Meanwhile, the more prominent character of Sheila essentially amounts to nothing more than the archetype of prostitute love interest who ends up wrecking the lead’s life even further because, oh, she’s a prostitute and they’ll steal your shit and aren’t to be trusted. Noemi is “the Madonna'”and Sheila ‘the whore,” though Barahona’s camera will happily get particularly leery with the bodies of both. The very male gaze-y capturing of Noemi’s nude public breakdown early on is uncomfortable for the wrong reasons, and it’s a directorial decision that’s hard to shake off when it becomes clear the film isn’t going to treat its other woman much better. It’s difficult to fully embrace how the rest of the film does successfully echo a collective experience of financial and existential crisis when the specifics of its supporting players are so vacuous.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.