Far away from civilisation, Henrique bathes in the Alva river, which runs through the central Portugal inland. Its current, known to vary through the year, is mellow and temperate, lapping on Henrique’s naked body as he drifts prostrate and contemplative. The man has sinned, but the Alva does not judge, because it does not know. It isn’t concerned with what or why, only that it will wash away any grime, grit and filth that it meets without prejudice. Floating outside of context and consequence, this wayward farmhand enjoys a tranquil moment of freedom in the water, but he will continue to carry his crime once he emerges, no matter what tangible matter the river may wash away.
Director Ico Costa makes use of 16mm film to shoot his feature debut Alva, a modest but potent entry into the slow cinema tradition. The natural grain, enhancing the texture and tactility of Henrique’s rural existence while imbuing the ambient natural light with a spectral, otherworldly quality, sets up an interplay between the corporeal and psychological which defines the central figure’s journey throughout the piece.
Living in isolation in a cabin in the Portuguese highlands at the film’s outset, excepting occasional, brief visits from the nearby villagers who supply him with food and fuel, Henrique ekes out a monotonous existence tending to the land and silently contemplating an unknowable, and likely tragic, past. Regretful glimpses of what drove him out of the world are mentioned in the spare, infrequent dialogue he shares with his visitors — estranged daughters and state psychologists are alluded to in passing, but the full story is never illuminated upon. These slivers of context are all viewers have before Henrique descends upon the village with a shotgun and makes brief, brutal work of an unseen target.
With the thunderous crack of Henrique’s weapon, any semblance of narrative thrust is decidedly obliterated — the terse, tortured hermit flees the village into the forest, where the bulk of Alva unfolds in deep, deliberate and muted contemplation. Although the odd helicopter may chug overhead to remind viewers that the authorities are on the protagonist’s trail, there is no urgency or immediacy to Henrique’s escape into the wilderness — though real forces remain in pursuit, what he is fleeing is actually the retribution wrought by his own mind.
Costa flexes his cinematographic muscles in the second half of Alva, which runs completely without dialogue and sees shots held for unblinking, laborious stretches. But he shares the weight of this foreboding passage with his lead actor, the untested Henrique Bonacho, whose every crevice of his craggy visage is explored and interrogated by Costa’s camera. Untold annals of torment are writ across the actor’s face, but as Henrique’s motivations remain unknowable, he also functions as something of a blank canvas to allow the viewer to project their own regrets and prejudices onto the physical trials the character must endure.
Is Henrique a man wronged, seeking revenge and justice for what he has lost? Or, is he evil — a vessel of cruelty and malice driven from the world who returns to civilisation to enact monstrosities at will? Costa provides no answers in the brief passages of narrative which bookend his feature, and so the potency of this slow, abstract middle act is increased substantially. As nature resists and accommodates Henrique’s presence alternately, throwing him down mountainsides, punishing him with rainstorms, but also providing shelter and sustenance, the viewer can only bring their own experiences to the images unfolding beautifully onscreen, with the expansive time spent in this omniscient trance only further intensifying the need for reflection and extensive soul-searching.
A showcase of the potent purity of visual expression, Alva concerns itself with consequence, more specifically the consequences we attribute to ourselves, as well as those we put upon others we can never truly know. Henrique appeals to another character near the film’s close, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” but Costa provides no means through which to believe him. Audiences spend 90 minutes in the man’s company, and follow him through the committing of horrific acts and through long stretches of physical and psychological distress, but are never allowed below Henrique’s skin — and thus he only remains a cypher for one’s own preoccupations and conclusions.
As such, what Costa provides is a cathartic, demanding but ultimately healing exercise in internal reckoning and self-realisation — the ways in which we are able to both punish and forgive ourselves.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.