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BLACK NIGHTS 2018 Estonian Film Competition

Review: Portugal

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- Although sumptuously shot, Lauri Lagle’s feature debut can’t really decide what it wants to be when it grows up

Review: Portugal

Portugal, written and directed by Lauri Lagle, won the top First Look prize along with post-production support at Locarno last year for, as it was argued, its “originality and look at contemporary life in Estonia”. But something clearly got lost along the way, as the story of married couple Karina (a luminous Mirtel Pohla) and Martin (Margus Prangel), still in love yet both approaching what certainly looks like a serious case of mid-life crisis, gets so convoluted that it almost mirrors its characters’ growing state of confusion.

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It might be because Lagle can’t really decide what his main focus is, merrily opting to try out just about everything that springs to mind in this movie screening in the Estonian Film Competition of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. For instance, it swings from a marital drama, complete with cringeworthy moments and mutual accusations, to a less glamorous version of Eat Pray Love once Katrina embarks on a solo adventure in a family’s trailer, but without much loving, and eating limited mostly to canned goods.

With its protagonists’ behaviour difficult to understand – they might worry about age, but nobody here is buying any Harley-Davidsons – it’s also hard to sympathise with their palpable pain. “Sometimes it feels as if life is slipping away,” Karina finally admits at one point, so far trying to find solace in getting drunk and causing scenes at her husband’s workplace, as she suspects him of infidelity. Martin doesn’t fare much better, though, staring at younger men overdoing it at the gym and – who knows? – maybe feeling a tad jealous of their bravado.

To paraphrase a certain Pedro Almodóvar title, Portugal could just as well be called People on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with everyone already halfway there. Burdened with various, and not always obviously spelled-out, issues, they feel so alone that the only solution is to discuss them with perfect strangers, often mere minutes into a conversation. And so an official meeting about finding porn on one of the company’s computers turns into musings on deciding to divorce at 50 years old, and when it ends with a piano falling on top of somebody’s car, somehow it seems strangely fitting.

That being said, there are some nicely executed moments here, too, so intimate that they are almost uncomfortable to watch – usually involving the long-time couple, exposed and vulnerable, counting each other’s grey hairs or observing changes to a familiar body. But what really stands out is the incredible work of Erik Põllumaa, who, after the likes of the odd yet interesting The Manslayer / The Virgin / The Shadow [+see also:
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(shot with Ivar Taim), is quickly becoming one of Estonia’s most gifted cinematographers. Gorgeously shot, with the kind of sun-kissed glow that seems to warm the whole cinema up, at least by a few degrees, Portugal is certainly a stunner. But for all its beauty, it’s bound to test one’s patience a bit.

Written by Lauri Lagle, Portugal was produced by Tiina Savi and Ivo Felt, of Estonian outfit Allfilm.

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