Vicente Alves do Ó • Director
“I want to get as close as possible to the real characters’ essence”
by Vitor Pinto
- We chatted to Portuguese director Vicente Alves do Ó, whose new film, Al Berto, is a biopic on the titular Portuguese poet during his time in the city of Sines
Whatever happened to Portuguese poet Al Berto in Sines, stayed in Sines – at least until now. Director Vicente Alves do Ó’s new feature, Al Berto [+see also:
interview: Vicente Alves do Ó
film profile], focuses on that formative – yet partially undocumented – period in the poet’s life, which was also the time when Portugal began to emerge from over 40 years of dictatorship. Cineuropa interviewed the scriptwriter-turned-director, whose biopics (Al Berto is his second, after Florbela [+see also:
film profile] in 2012) aim to shed new light on the souls of real-life characters.
Cineuropa: How challenging was it to write and direct a film about people you were so close to?
Vicente Alves do Ó: It was a long and tough process. My half brother died seven years ago, and I got all of his personal belongings. The script is principally based on his diaries. There were also texts dedicated to Al Berto and texts written by Al Berto himself – mostly letters. As I knew both of them, I could hear their voices while reading all of that material. It was hard to keep a distance. Everything you see in the film is based on real events – their love story, the horse in the mansion, the circus, the parties, the discomfort they caused… My biggest problem was selecting what I wanted to shoot. So much had happened that I could have made a five-hour film.
We are introduced to another side of the poet – a more joyful one – which is quite different from the image of the brooding author he cultivated in his writings.
I tried to get as close as possible to the image I had of him. He was a loud man, and he could easily become the life of the party. As a matter of fact, there were three Al Bertos: the public figure, the private one and the literary persona. They were all him, as paradoxical as it may seem. I did not want to expose his complexity entirely and explicitly, but rather give hints of who he was. All of the aspects in Al Berto’s life are there: the father, the household, Brussels, the child he never met – but none of it is portrayed in an explicit way.
I needed the film to add something to that obscure image, rather than getting hung up on the literary persona. Otherwise, there was no sense in making the film. The script works as a sort of rite of passage, and it ends with Al Berto entering a darker phase, which people tend to associate him with. I was not interested in what came next – everybody knows what happened next. His period in Sines and his clash with Portugal after the Brussels period is much more interesting. That’s when he drops painting for poetry, and that’s when he experiences his big love story. I believe this period was fundamental in his life, and it resonates in all of his work.
In one of the scenes, a prostitute tells Al Berto, “You lived abroad and you have seen the future. But the future hasn’t got here yet.” Is the film also about the inability of a small town (and a country) to embrace change?
Al Berto’s arrival definitely inspired the locals who were interested in the arts. There was an idea of liberty in the air, which suddenly spread to a lot of people. But their lifestyle was outrageous to many others. The Carnation Revolution officially declared a state of liberty, but in practical terms, people didn’t know how to be free. They had not been taught about it, and they didn’t know what to do with other people’s freedom. They were very judgemental and willing to put others into boxes. I think the film is relevant because even nowadays, people have trouble with this.
You worked with DoP Rui Poças (from Lucrecia Martel’s Zama [+see also:
interview: Lucrecia Martel
film profile]) for the first time. How was that collaboration?
I had wanted to work with him for a while, and I was looking for the right project to do so. He managed to create an immediate empathy with the characters and with the themes. A great DoP is not just a man who knows about technical stuff; it is someone who understands the narrative and connects with it. In that sense, it was wonderful to work with him. He respected my language but also brought his own universe to the film. It was a true collaboration.
Biopics are not a common genre in Portuguese cinema, but you seem quite fond of them. This is your second one – again about a poet. What is the appeal?
When I make biopics, I am more interested in focusing on what those real-life characters were inside, rather than approaching their lives chronologically. I want to get as close as possible to their essence, offer something that isn’t part of the collective imagination and enable new perspectives on these people to emerge. Hopefully, my film will help a new generation to discover Al Berto.
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