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Portugal / France / Belgium

Cristèle Alves Meira • Director of Alma viva

“Cinema allows you to go beyond outward appearances”


- The French-Portuguese director unpicks her magical film, which was premiered in last year’s Cannes Critics’ Week as well as being the Portuguese contender for the Oscars

Cristèle Alves Meira • Director of Alma viva

Cristèle Alves Meira worked as an actress and theatre director before making the leap to filmmaking. Her feature-length fiction debut, Alma viva [+see also:
film review
interview: Cristèle Alves Meira
film profile
, which stars her own daughter Lua Michel – as well as several non-professional actors – was shot in Trás-os-Montes (Portugal), where she regularly spends the summer, living as she does in France. After taking part in numerous festivals following its premiere in last year’s Cannes Critics’ Week, and being chosen as the Portuguese submission for the Oscars, it hits Spanish theatres on Friday 9 June, distributed by Paco Poch Cinema.

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Cineuropa: Your own daughter plays the lead role – terrifically, by the way – in Alma viva. Why did you make that decision?
Cristèle Alves Meira:
When I began to write the storyline, I was pregnant and had Lua in my belly, but the protagonist was meant to be a teenage girl. Then I made the main character into a young girl because I didn’t want to get into this business of summer romances that would divert the attention away from the magical realism and the special relationship the girl has with her grandmother, both of which I was really interested in. Once the protagonist had become a young girl, we began holding casting sessions with 11-year-olds: during those castings, Lua gave the cue lines to the candidates. And the casting director asked me why I hadn’t chosen my daughter for the role, as she was better at it and was well prepared.

The rural Portugal that appears in the movie looks quite similar to Spain’s bucolic areas, with the women taking care of the children, with whom they establish a very special bond.
It’s a matriarchal society in practice, even though theoretically it’s a patriarchy, because the women there are the ones who know the plants, the prayers, how to manage family life and so on. They are powerful women, and I use my film to pay tribute to them. Furthermore, they liberate themselves: the grandmother calmly gets undressed, Aunt Fátima is having a sexual relationship with a female neighbour, and little Salomé (played by my daughter) goes on her night-time walkabouts…

In your feature, you talk about two worlds: the material one, and the world of magic and superstition, which is gradually being lost.
Contrary to today’s widespread standardisation and rationalisation, I make a case for superstition, beliefs and ancestral worlds. In addition, cinema allows you to go beyond outward appearances; it allows you to believe. The editor, the DoP on the film and I were wondering about the unsaid, the unseen, the things that remain a mystery and the things that stay out of shot. I prefer an image to lines and lines of dialogue, like the shot of the grandmother’s feet, which explains a great deal in Alma viva.

Death is very much present in this Portuguese town, as the children literally live with it.
Death is left in the home, and you live with the deceased person. Death is a sign of our impotence, and that’s why it’s concealed in modern society. But we must mourn without hiding away; we must learn how to do so.

The possession that we see in the film… Is it something akin to a transmission of the legacy that the grandmother bequeaths to her granddaughter?
Yes, the little girl has the gift of the “open body”, which means she can communicate with her late grandmother, reuniting the family and passing on that respect. My film can be a very rational movie while also having a metaphorical and mystical explanation: I like the fact that you can interpret Alma viva in both ways, even though its main topic is still spiritual transmission.

There’s a fabulous phrase that is heard in the film, from the mouth of one of the supporting characters: “Money is the shit of the devil.”
I love that sentence! I heard it as a proverb and decided to include it in the movie, making the blind uncle say it – here, he acts as though he’s performing in a Greek tragedy.

How was the work split among the three co-producing countries?
The movie, which had a total budget of €1.6 million, was shot in Portugal, even though I live in France, where the post-production and the special effects for the fire were done, while Belgium took care of the sound mixing.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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