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BERLINALE 2024 Encounters

Review: Hands in the Fire


- BERLINALE 2024: Margarida Gil follows a young film student as she visits a house that comes to life through its inhabitants

Review: Hands in the Fire
Carolina Campanela in Hands in the Fire

A house can hold many secrets. Behind each door, there could be a story to tell, and it takes someone willing to fully open it to see what it conceals. In Margarida Gil’s latest feature, Hands in the Fire [+see also:
film profile
, which premiered in the Berlinale’s Encounters strand, a Solar do Douro takes centre stage, serving as the destination for the film’s protagonist, Maria do Mar (Carolina Campanela). She is a young filmmaking student who sets off on a mission to preserve this type of old manor house through film.

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She also has another goal in mind: working on her thesis on capturing the “real”. A house comes to life through its inhabitants, which is who we – and Maria do Mar – encounter: the cook, the owner, the nanny and two children. As the protagonist continuously roams around the magnificent spaces, she becomes our guide in getting to know each of these characters, as well as those who live close by. What was first unforeseen becomes clear: what could be described as the truth is slowly unveiled. Not only do we get to know more about the others, but we also follow the transformation of the protagonist. She starts off as a perfectionistic, stubbornly idealistic person obsessed with the rules, but with time, experience and a human connection, she loosens up and opens herself up to a world of possibilities. With a well-developed character arc, she becomes a conduit allowing the audience to connect with a captivating set of personalities.

Hands in the Fire is loosely inspired by Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. The gothic tone is firmly set: throughout the film, there’s a soft but persistent sense of looming horror. At one point, the cook says to Maria do Mar, “Evil is in the eyes of the beholder.” In this case – and in life itself – evil is in the unseen. Each step leads us closer to the resolution of a mystery and also to a succession of beautifully captured scenes. The house becomes a full-blooded character with the masterful interplay of its components – doors, lights, furniture and so on – thanks to the outstanding cinematography by Acácio de Almeida. These are images that manage to feel both original and contemporary, but also reminiscent of scenes from various chapters in film history.

In one of her few trips out of the house, Maria do Mar goes with her recorder and microphone to a vast space, accompanied by one of the neighbours, Gracinha (Sara Santos). Here, she shares, “Silence is the heartbeat of the world.” The use of sound in this film is indeed key to its essence: the mostly unembellished soundscape takes a detail-orientated, simplistic approach that makes use of silence to create space. Thanks to this, one is also able to connect more closely with other elements, such as the dialogue and the music. Music, for example, serves as an indicator of some of the characters’ personality traits or the situations they are in. Gracinha’s naive but grounded personality is emphasised each time she uses her soft, gently cracking, angelic voice to sing songs connected to tunes that are popular in Portuguese culture. On the other hand, the children living in the house repeatedly practise songs from sheet music.

Outside of the building, we hear a band playing a cover of 1988’s “O Anzol” by Rádio Macau. This element, when mixed with the whole array of choices regarding the set and costume design, makes it impossible to trace the period setting of the film. It’s “nowhen” and “everywhen”, and this is quite fitting for a film that portrays the lingering, dark sides of the human soul: not always seen, but ever present.

Hands in the Fire is a Portuguese production staged by Ar de Filmes. Pedro Ramalhete takes care of the international sales.

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