Film Review: Centro HistoricoFour art-film heavyweights descend on the historic city of Guimarães in this intriguing though occasionally trying collection of shorts.
By design, omnibus films tend to be unbalanced, with some segments clearly working better than others. In the case of the Portuguese-produced Centro Histórico, which includes pieces by top-notch auteurs Aki Kaurismäki, Pedro Costa, Victor Erice and Manoel de Oliveira, there is some truth to that statement, although the filmmakers manage to create a fairly consistent ensemble in these four shorts set in the northern city of Guimarães, which was designated European Capital of Culture for 2012.
While the films all share a common location and level of craft, they differ greatly in style and tone, with each filmmaker indulging in whatever fancies them most, sometimes to detrimental effect.
In the strong opener Tavern Man (O Tasquiero), Finnish auteur Kaurismäki (Le Havre, The Man Without a Past) offers up a dialogue-less, deadpan comedy about a forlorn bar owner (regular Ilkka Koivula) trying his best to attract clients in the city’s historic central neighborhood. Although the story feels a bit truncated, there are plenty of cleverly drawn sight gags involving the man’s efforts to beat a competing tavern down the street, while the quiet shots of customers drinking alone underscores a certain leaden sadness, despite some otherwise hilarious bits.
Pedro Costa’s patience-testing Sweet Exorcist follows regular actor Ventura (Colossal Youth) on a delirious death trip where he purges his own demons in a lengthy, often maddening dialogue with a mute Portuguese soldier (António Santos) caked in bronze paint, the majority of it taking place in an elevator. Running—or at least seeming to run—much longer than the other shorts in the series, the film revisits its character’s long and arduous past as a Cap Verdean who immigrated to Portugal and crossed paths with the events of the 1974 Carnation Revolution, while working himself to the bone through old age. In some ways more lively and fast-paced than Costa’s other work, Exorcist will still play best with his confirmed fan base.
With only three features under his belt, including the 1973 masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive, it’s unfortunate that Spanish director Erice has confined himself to shorts over the last two decades, even if his segment Broken Windows (Vidros Partidos) proves to be an intriguing, at times moving addition to his oeuvre. This minimalist documentary features testimony by workers from the abandoned Vizela River Textile Mill, one of Europe’s largest during a period stretching over 150 years, until the effects of globalization forced it to shut down in 2002. Marked by some emotional flourishes as the laborers recount both the pleasures and hardships of working the assembly line, the film nonetheless maintains a certain austere distance, with the subjects speaking straight into the camera and the action confined to a single room.
Short and sweet, as only a 104-year-old director could perhaps pull off, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Conquered Conqueror (O Conquistador, Conquistado) offers up a snarky satire on contemporary tourism. As a guide (Ricardo Trêpa) leads busloads of fanny-packers through landmarks celebrating the birth of Portugal’s first king, Afonso I (aka “the Conqueror”), the sites are soon targeted by another kind of conquistador: modern-day tourists, armed with digital cameras and cell-phones.
Tech credits are terrific in all segments, with cinematographers Timo Salminen and Leonardo Simões (co-credited along with the director) providing especially strong imagery in the Kaurismäki and Costa shorts, respectively.