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CANNES 2023 Directors’ Fortnight

Review: Légua


- CANNES 2023: Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra alight on three generations of women who make up the servant class of a large estate, in a tale with the uncanny aura of a ghost story

Review: Légua
Carla Maciel in Légua

As if the vast emptiness, eerie presence of animals and repetitive personal rituals didn’t tip you off to filmmakers Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra’s intent in their second feature, Légua [+see also:
interview: Filipa Reis, João Miller Gu…
film profile
, one key character remarks to another, “You can’t take care of a haunted house.” It’s a rare piece of transparent dialogue in this tight-lipped, understated movie, which feels like it’s collapsing into its own hypnotic inertia until the filmmakers occasionally incorporate more dynamic visuals, sound and especially music. What emerges is a controlled and suggestive drama gesturing with melancholy at the process by which we make our work our lives, and its attendant consequences for the generations below us. The film premiered in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.

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The famous and cruel euphemism about madness goes, “The lights are on, but there’s nobody home.” The owners are seldom seen on their vast estate or at their stately home in the area of Légua, close to Porto in Portugal, leaving stalwart housekeeper Emília (Fátima Soares) and her colleague Ana (Carla Maciel) to sweep, dust, fold and squeakily polish, for the presence of no one and with elusive motivation on their part. Officially, tenants and renters could arrive at any moment, the pigs and chickens occasionally wander from their pen to graze on the plush settee, and gathering particles of dirt on surfaces can’t evacuate themselves, so the two of them have a full workday’s duties to keep themselves occupied, somehow shielded from the gnawing pointlessness of it all.

Ana, whose freer spirit and drive are glimpsed in the romantic Portuguese pop she sings along to, and the vigorous sex she has with her building-contractor husband Victor (Paulo Calatré) in the senhor and senhora’s own marital bed, is granted two options to vacate this situation, if only she’d notice them. First, the ageing Emília has been stricken with multiple myeloma and is beginning to falter, requiring round-the-clock care; then, a younger relative of the owners dispatches a real-estate agent to make a valuation, whom Ana greets with rare, unwelcome hospitality. Her daughter Mònica (Vitória Nogueira da Silva), a bright engineering student who dreams of vibrant parties elsewhere, is perhaps the part of her legacy and lineage that can emancipate herself from all this.

It’s quite a simple film on the surface, with the repetitive housework sequences not resembling the precise formalism of a Jeanne Dielman; the viewer finds themself leaning in to concentrate on Ana and Emília’s actions, but the cutting and imagery fuse into a repetitive paste, serving as a warning that a study of stasis can resemble that which it is diagnosing. Yet we come away from Légua with something fresh and potent in our bloodstream, another glimpse at the country’s decaying landowning class, where the 19th century has apparently stood still. It also joins a fascinating wave of Iberian and South American films exploring upstairs-downstairs relations in country manors like these, which question whether the “help” are just that and how they assume a de facto ownership of the grounds they unwaveringly tend.

Légua is a production by Portugal, France and Italy, staged by Uma Pedra no Sapato, Laranja Azul, KG Productions and Stayblack. World sales are by Luxbox.

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