War and Peace in the footsteps of Raúl Ruiz
by Domenico La Porta
- Entwined destinies in war-torn 19th century Portugal in Valeria Sarmiento’s historical drama unveiled in the competition in Venice
The cinematic version of Lines of Wellington [+see also:
interview: Valeria Sarmiento
film profile] — only just cut down to 150 minutes from the three-part mini-series to be 20 minutes longer — is the project that Raúl Ruiz was working on when he died. Portuguese producer Paulo Branco and filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento, the deceased Chilean director's wife, took over where he had left off to make the film that has now screened in the competition at the 69th Venice Film Festival. Lines of Wellington (the television version is titled As Linhas de Torres Vedras) was produced on a budget that was 35% Portuguese and 75% French, despite the latter not appearing at their best in the film, in the uniforms of uncouth, cruel, and violent invaders.
This epic drama is set in a violent context. It’s 19th century Portugal, and Napoleon’s troops led by General Massena (Melvil Poupaud, who has acted for Raúl Ruiz since childhood) are being pushed back by the Portuguese army allied with General Wellington’s English soldiers. (Wellington is played by John Malkovich whose limited presence onscreen adds a little light humour to the story.) Wellington’s strategy consists in retreating so that the invader comes crashing against the fortification lines that he is having built on the edge of Lisbon. But this victory will be at the cost of the death of many people from all classes of the population. Sarmiento’s film tells a series of correlated stories, as she directs a very diverse collection of characters all worn down by the force of these events.
By choosing an old-school directing style, Valeria Sarmiento reinforces the solemn dimension of a film that not only aims to be a homage to her late husband (with guest appearances by Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Amalric, Michel Piccoli, and Chiara Mastroianni among others), but also a historical record from a grassroots perspective. Indeed, the film focuses very little on the battle's great figures played by John Malkovich and Melvil Poupaud, and lingers no longer on great explosive battle scenes, even for the film’s ending. The camera, instead, remains mostly with the conflict’s smaller actors and victims. Thus, Carlos Saboga’s screenplay grants an important part to Carloto Cotta (Tabu [+see also:
interview: Miguel Gomes
interview: Miguel Gomes
film profile])’s character, a soldier who is wounded in combat then reunited with his fellow fighters. One of these, a farmer turned fighter for his country played by the charismatic Nuno Lopes (Blood of My Blood [+see also:
film profile]), is the hero of the film’s most developed segment.
Lines of Wellington could easily have become bogged up in its unusual length, but instead it navigates fluidly between its narrative arcs. Credit for the film’s editing goes entirely to the film’s director. Valeria Sarmiento has directed her own film, inspired by the many discussions she had with her husband before he died.
The result is a well-tied-together, historically credible film that stands on its own. It was never about making a film in the same style as Raúl Ruiz, but rather about being the latest in a long line of film directors to dedicate their work to the Chilean master.
(Translated from French)