Shadow Under This Red Rock: Farpões, Baldios by Marta Mateus

Writing about a first film involves a stumbling through the dark territory of an unknown dialogue. It might feel like the sound of one’s own voice after a decade of silence: fragile, wrong. Yet, in the case of Marta Mateus and her short Farpões, Baldios, a confidence is established as it decidedly is a film about dialogues. It opens and invites the words that follow.

The film premiered at this year’s Quinzaine des Réalisateurs in Cannes and is up to now the best film I have seen this year. Why such a statement? Maybe because otherwise it is hard to get the attention for a short film, a first film. It is a film in which two hearts beat: The first belongs to tenderness, the second to severity. The first belongs to the present, the second to the past. The first belongs to the young, the second to the old. Between those movements lies a shaking that opens a world of concentration. So, before talking about the setting or the plot of the film, it invites and asks to comment on its presence and sensuality.  In the case of Mateus, the kind of work that goes into each frame is reminiscent of very few filmmakers. As it is customary to give some names in order to place a new voice among the old, let me get that out of the way: D. W. Griffith, Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, Pedro Costa, António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro. Here Mateus opens a first dialogue, the dialogue with cinema. Like almost all dialogues in the film, it takes place between ideas of tradition and modernity, but also between the observer and the observed. Mateus, like great artists do, studied how to paint a person in order to film a real person, instead of studying the person and going ahead with painting without knowledge. So, it is clear that we can detect cinema in the film. Yet, Mateus succeeds taking cinema to people and places.

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The work that goes into each image is related to the work with distances, sounds and framing. The first shot of the film shows a dark entrance into an unknown space. The wall around the black hole that works as a door tells the stories of dirt and fire. On the left, a sort of chain hangs loose, slowly moving in the soft wind. It immediately becomes clear that things have passed that door, that building. We hear an approaching sound. It is loud and violent, it rattles along the ground, becoming louder and louder. Then an old farmer appears from out of the black hole, he holds a rake and drags it behind him. The moment he appears he vanishes out of the frame. The camera lingers a few more seconds to look at the black hole as an insect (maybe a butterfly) enters the frame, not certain if it wants to fly into the hole or stay outside. Somebody emerges from the blackness, something will be shown that was buried. Bodies, violence, rage and movements. Though distant clinking sounds can be heard from time to time in the film, the work with sound in the first shot tells a lot about the approach to the people and their (hi)story. Mateus never makes us hear more than what her position allows for. If people move into the distance, we hear the distance; if they come close, we hear the intimacy. It is a film about evidence and the impossibility of evidence: How to approach certain topics, what we see or do not see, especially when talking about things that have passed, like the Carnation Revolution, and the days of revolt and work in the Alentejo region. The subjectivity and forlornness of such an endeavour is reflected in the form of the film, a form that makes us feel the weight of each shot. Her framing is a decision. Though Mateus sometimes cuts during a scene, she never does it without reason. There are only two obvious point-of-view shots in the film (one could argue that many shots are seen through the eyes of children or ghosts), both depicting hands. One belonging to a young boy who holds grains in his hand, the other to an old woman who only holds wrinkles instead of life.

This is the way dialogues are opened up in the film. The second one takes place between the old farmers and the children. During the Revolution, the farmers occupied their masters’ huge properties, scenes we only feel shadows of in the film, recalling Thomas Harlan’s Torre Bella. Yet, while Harlan stated that the revolutionary actions in his films were also motivated and changed due to the presence of the camera, Mateus’ camera has no choice but being either too early or too late. Too early refers to the children who, like in Paul Meyer’s Déja s’envole la fleur maigre, inspire the places of former struggle. Always on the move, observing, searching and being searched for, it becomes more and more unclear if it is the young ones who thwart history like phantoms or the old stories and legends that haunt the region. Regardless of what holds true, the utopian possibility of a dialogue is offered in the film when the old tell their story to the young in a mixture of oral storytelling and theatrical performance. Sometimes only the gestures remain (which is also true for the camera when it focuses on a group of people looking into the lense), and sometimes a reality that makes tangible what has been lost is established. In the end a bus leaves taking the young and the old with it. The idea of collectivized agriculture that followed that Revolution and the Agrarian Reform has long disappeared here. Very prominently, a very yellow Tati-like factory building centres the frame when the bus has long gone. The dialogue between agriculture and people seems to have stopped in a region that is considered the „bread basket“ of Portugal. The enthusiasm of 1974 has become an illusion. In a violent scene the film shows how children are expelled from a farm by two men. Instruments are thrown at them, nobody ever works with them in the film. It is a wasteland without use. Still, the film looks at the stones and dirt with eyes that want more:

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„What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), (…)“

(T.S. Eliot, Wasteland)

The third dialogue takes place between the camera and the people acting. Recurrently, the young boy who we can call a protagonist faces the camera instead of the scene. He moves a bit like Benjamin’s “Angel of History“  and we can very well say that Farpões, Baldios is another one of those films that show the transfiguration of the revolutionary into the historian. It is an honest search for a beginning in order to know where and how to continue. This dialogue involves a visible effort for grace and independence in the faces and acts of the people. In a way, the film gives a voice not only to the historians but also to the common revolutionaries, even if they have no voice yet. Not only due to this, the film tells of an emancipation that derives from dissent and play at the same time. In order to continue, we have need for such a film.

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