- Paulo Carneiro’s documentary debut charts a poetic journey towards personal resolution
Mountains and fog fill out the screen: a landscape made of the geological, steady movements of Portugal’s northern region, with lands only divided by a few narrow roads leading to scarce and sparse hints of human life. This is how and where Paulo Carneiro’s documentary debut, Bostofrio [+see also:
film profile], playing in Portuguese cinemas since 7 November, begins: with a glimpse of the eponymous town, lost in the middle of nowhere.
Bostofrio is where part of the director’s family lived and grew up, and this is the land he explores. Carneiro meets people he tries to (re)connect with, in a quest to find out more about his ancestors. More specifically, he is looking for his grandfather: the story of the life and relationships of a man who, like many others at the time, didn’t publicly recognise his son, the director’s father. This absent grandfather is the main (absent) character of this visual and personal quest, which leads Paulo Carneiro on a path towards personal resolution, but also inevitably towards an almost anthropological reflection of Portuguese society in rural areas.
Divided into twelve chapters, the film allows us to observe and listen to nine conversations with people from the village: Casemira, Maria, Lucília and Octávio, Saul, Maria do Virgínia, Manuel Espada, Albertina, Ana and Domingos, Rosa and Salvador, Nair. If, at first, the camera can appear disruptive to the free flow of information with some of these subjects (even when it is set up far away from them), it soon becomes clear that, more than the presence of the camera, it is the still prevailing stigma and deeply rooted cultural behavioural aspects of some of those people that often deny us and the director any straightforward answers to a simple question: “Who was my grandfather?”.
A simple question that is deeply emotionally charged, as is the film itself, right from the start. The film opens on an unsettling black out that seems to last forever, where the director declares, in a single sentence, that this film about his grandfather is an homage to his father. The landscape too, in all its variants – from burning trees to grazing cows – portrays Carneiro’s emotional inner journey.
The guiding structure of the film’s editing and its pace can be perceived from the first chapter: seven people chant, in an unsynchronised way, the “Dobadoura”, a traditional song about weaving linen. String by string, chapter by chapter, we are able to fill out some of the missing elements about the director’s grandfather — whose name, Domingos Espada, is only unveiled in the fourth chapter — in an attempt to create a full image of him: a missing image of a missing father, a missing lead character. This image is built through dialogue, but also through failure and personal effort. More than an image of Domingos, it is also a portrait of a cultural landscape: the schist houses he passed by, the sound of cow bells that never stops echoing in the bleak emptiness of the paths, the stigmas and social conventions of regions we don’t usually see but which are still present. In the end, the film leads us to the only place where Paulo Carneiro can actually see the photographic representation of his grandfather: the cemetery. Driven to the entrance, we see the shadows on the schist walls that surround his grandfather’s grave. We don’t – and will never – see him, just as Paulo Carneiro and his father never truly did. Here lies the poetry of the film: in the visual and discursive portrait of a personal journey about someone the director seeks out but doesn’t really want to find.
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