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Al Berto: Liberty, there for the taking


- Vicente Alves do Ó focuses on the youth of Portuguese poet Al Berto, in a character-driven film set against the backdrop of post-revolutionary Portugal

Al Berto: Liberty, there for the taking

Portuguese director Vicente Alves do Ó has a penchant for poets. Previously, he directed the biopic of female author Florbela Espanca (Florbela [+see also:
film profile
). Now he is back with a film focused on the figure of Al Berto, a cult name in Portuguese literature who died 20 years ago, at the peak of his fame. Shooting Al Berto [+see also:
interview: Vicente Alves do Ó
film profile
 was a twofold challenge for Alves do Ó, as the film is simultaneously the portrait of the poet’s youth and a story of the director’s own family.

The film takes us back to 1975, when the winds of change were blowing over post-revolutionary Portugal. Al Berto returns to his small village, Sines, after several years in Brussels, where he was trained as a painter. Now, he is a wannabe poet who will soon bewitch some of Sines’ youngsters, just as he will incur the wrath of the most conservative locals. Settling illegally in a mansion that had been expropriated from his family during the revolution, young Al Berto begins to hang out with locals who share his interest in the arts and dream of a different life. Among them is João Maria, who will soon become Al Berto’s lover. He was, in real life, the director’s older half-brother. Together, Al Berto and João Maria will go on to provide Sines with its well-deserved trendy scene, its movida, which included the opening of a bookshop downtown, and some extravagant parties at the old mansion.

Al Berto was ready for Sines, but Sines wasn’t ready for Al Berto. In the film, Alves do Ó’s goal is to depict a clash of mentalities in an attempt to capture the spirit of a time in turmoil. The open relationship between the two men and their entourage, in stark contrast with the town’s narrow-minded attitude, will lead to several conflicts and will ultimately cause the group to separate. Liberty was there for the taking, but people had not been taught to be free and were not sure exactly what to do with it.

Al Berto is portrayed as a confident young man who is fearless and joyful in equal measure. Surprisingly, we become acquainted with an upbeat character – and the film seems to imply that the Sines period was fundamental for the poet’s subsequent reinvention as a creature of the night once he left Sines (and João Maria) behind. In that sense, the film functions as a coming-of-age tale in which newcomer Ricardo Teixeira imbues Al Berto with a prominent sexual freedom. Teixeira approaches the real-life character from his most sensorial side, rather than underlining his potentially anguish-riddled inner world. Al Berto’s darker side is only revealed at certain moments of rage and, occasionally, when he meets a local prostitute (Rute Miranda).

On the other hand, João Maria, depicted through a visceral performance by José Pimentão, is a more real and less mysterious character – probably because the script is based on his own diaries and texts, which the director inherited upon his brother’s death. One thing is certain about Alves do Ó’s cinema: he loves his actors and is willing to create the right conditions for them to bloom. Both Teixeira and Pimentão, who come mainly from a theatrical background, do not pass up the chance to deliver engaging performances in their big-screen debuts.

In a year of particularly disappointing box-office results for Portuguese productions – no title has yet racked up more than 46,000 admissions – Al Berto is being released in the main theatres across the country by leading exhibitor NOS-Lusomundo, which is hoping to attract the hard-to-impress local audiences.

Looking forward, Alves do Ó now wants to continue shooting biopics of Portugal’s most prominent cultural figures. One of his upcoming projects, currently at the financing stage, focuses on modernist painter Amadeo de Souza Cardoso. The movie is expected to be shot and released in 2018, upon the centenary of the painter’s death. 

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