Recollections of the Yellow House. Even those who haven’t read a lot immediately remember Dostoevsky and Recollections of the House of the Dead [in Portuguese, The House of the Dead in English]. We know the journey won’t be nice. Yellow House why? The following subtitle – we are still plunged into the blackest black – explains: “In my hometown they used to call yellow house to the house where the inmates were kept. Sometimes, while playing in the street, we, children, threw stealthy looks to the dark and silent bars of the high windows and, with a choked heart, muttered: ‘Poor things’…”
The titles roll. We hear a flute, weird sounds, screams. The yellow house isn’t a prison. It’s a an asylum. João de Deus [John of God] is already talking from there, when he recites in off a text from Céline (Mort à Crédit). But light reaches the screen, and what begins is a flashback. Slow travelling over Lisbon, shot from the Tejo, uncovering the most beautiful part of town, from Terreiro do Paço to the Madre de Deus. Old houses? As Dona Violeta will correct, “baroque, Mr. João. This house belonged to marquises, princes of Portugal”. No-one’s playing, much less the director. During the film, countless times, we dive into these neighborhoods, streets, squares and alleys. All so strange, all so unknown. Lisbon has a face and a reverse. We see the face from the river, and it’s nice for the poets. We see the reverse in land, and it’s nice for the painters. The city is extremely secretive. Those who see faces don’t see hearts. Beyond the facades begin the surprises. Let the tourist have the ville blanche. Those who die here know how everything is dark. So dark that, in the end – when João de Deus reincarnates into Nosferatu – João César didn’t need any trick to frame it into an expressionist décor. Murnau – not to speak of Robert Wiene – needed studios and great set decorators. João César only needed to set the camera, rigourously frame the picture, and wait for the light. Miracles do happen. The poster for the film – a reproduction of Grosz’s painting John der Frauenmörder, painted in 1918 – wasn’t a model for the film. Instead, it looks like its copy. The arts, sometimes, have singular coincidences.
The river’s travelling doesn’t end by chance at Madre de Deus. It’s also not by chance that the following sequence takes place in a chapel, dedicated to Our Lady, and that the first image we see is of Our Lady. We even see Our Lady before we see João de Deus. That’s because Recollections of the Yellow House is also – I’d say is especially – a film about the Mother. The Mother is the central theme in these Recollections. Thus, the ending of the travelling raccords with the baroque image of Our Lady. A close-up, slightly in contre-plongée. Cut and counter-shot. The Virgin is being looked at by João de Deus, who we knew by voice (the long monologue on bedbugs) but only now do we know him in the flesh. He’s sitting in the dark of the “ancestral, silent and empty” church. He gets up slowly and goes away, stopping by the holy water and the donations box. After a lot of words, a lot of silence. It’s possible that the spectator taken by the provocation – or the truculence – of the verb open the ears more than the eyes. That will be our fault, not the director’s. One doesn’t begin a film in a church by chance. We’ll find out why later on.
Later on. After the sequence at the café with Pom-Pom and Mimi, that is, with the dog and the whore. João de Deus hasn’t opened his mouth during the neighborhood conversation, supposedly realist (they even talk about ”our Benfica”). Narrow-minded people don’t see anything but fado and football. But when João de Deus leaves, Mimi, reflected in a big oval mirror, looks at him and stands looking at him for a long time without him looking back. Later on she’ll say “I see him almost every day on the street or in the café. I noticed you because you always keep to yourself. You don’t talk to anyone.”. “I do, but one doesn’t notice it”. In the mirror shot we had the first sign of attention without words. She, who’ll later say, translating from the Bohème, “call me Mimi”, is the first person in the film who notices João de Deus, protecting him maternally (the oval mirror), recurring image in the films of César Monteiro.
And here I’ll make a cinephile parenthesis. If the most attentive critics discovered it (it’s in the film the rhyme between these Recollections and Who Waits for the Deceased's Shoes Dies Barefoot, João César Monteiro’s first film), I didn’t find anywhere a reference to the continuity of the 1975 film What Will I Do with This Sword? Nosferatu, cited in the two works? Something else. Mimi is the twin sister of that other Cais do Sodré whore that confessed after Butterfly. Sons of her passes for an insult. We have forgotten the Gospels. These enter before the others in the Kingdoms of Heaven.
João de Deus comes out of the café. And the discreet allusion to the mother comes out in the soundtrack, when we start hearing Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater. There was a cut and João de Deus, shot in plongée, stops at the hall of an eighteenth century house, covered in azulejos and with a beautiful floor. The shot has the length and the solenity to be sacral. It’s the entrance to a temple. “Eia, Mater fons amoris / Me sentire vim doloris / Fac ut tecum lugeam”, it is sung, and no-one is playing with words or music. João de Deus starts ascending the stairs – big stone stairs – in a close ensemble shot. The camera moves from left to right and we see the hall. In the right, an angel with a torch and at his feet a woman sweeps the floor with a yellow soap bar. Further away, in the left, a curtain with Portugal’s coat of arms. Vivaldi keeps playing and all the signs are aligned for the sacral staging. One only has to say it. The camera tracks back and frames João de Deus, standing, with his back turned to us, on the top of the stairs, far from the woman. And then he says twice: ‘Mother, Mother’.
The dialogue between the two is curt and dry (on the son’s part). João de Deus went there to ask her mother for money, all the money his mother has. She gives it to him. Scabrous situation, abject, etc.? Those who stay at that don’t have eyes, heart or taste. He’s looking at the most beautiful of Pietás. Quis est homo, qui non fleret?
The same sacredness presides over the staging of Mimi’s encounter with João de Deus at the bar: the vaneyckian aureole and no ‘stuff’ [in Portuguese, coiso, which sounds like coito, coitus, and is often used as such]. It presides, afterwards, over the via crucis of the dog kennel (“I’m with you”) or the lunch of cabidela, with that sublime ending (“more general light, if possible”) over the closeup of Mimi’s hands saying: “I shall only have, then, to burry both hands in the net to feel everything that is born from it”.
Until João de Deus’s birthday night arrives. He only thinks about the girl’s clarinet. But, when she finally plays it (if I’m not mistaken it’s Mozart’s K.622), it starts to rain and everyone runs away. The girl, the clarinet and Mozart stay alone. But during the whole ‘party’, Mimi was always following João de Deus from afar. And it’s through the breath of Mozart (like the gushing gargoyles of the fountains) that we reach the closeup of Mimi, inside the house. A “louisebrrokian shot” (João César Monteiro’s words). And she says, offering herself: “it’s my birthday present”. Mozart gives way to Schubert. First the cello, then the violin, finally the piano. She takes off her socks. The camera frames João de Deus against the wall, sitting on his room’s bed. João de Deus, tiny, on the left. Over the bed, the boots from Stroheim’s picture. And while the Trio continues, the camera rises very slowly, dropping the protagonist to show us Stroheim in full body, dressed like a cavalry officer. We hear sighs off screen and finally the silence. “What?”, Mimi asks off screen. And that’s when we know, through João de Deus’s direct response, that Mimi’s a mother. Again, the Mother of God [Mãe de Deus].
In the following sequence, she has already dies. Then, there’s the visit to her room, so sacral and so sacrilegious as the visit to the Madre [Mother/ Madre de Deus/ Mother of God. There’s a great deal of play on words, both in the film and in this analysis, that’s very hard to translate]. The doll is the substitution figure that Miss Julieta can’t be.
Lost all the mothers, all the women, João de Deus assumes himself as a pariah (fabulous sequence in the garden bench, with the description of the sequence of Madre de Deus/ Mother of God’s death) and then he assumes himself as that Stroheim who had witnessed his only night of love. It’s Stroheim who dominates a Lisbon in ruins, where the Carmo of the Tanhäuser rhymes with a gutted Chiado.
And, in the circular race at the asylum, João de Deus covers the path that connects Lívio (Luís Miguel Cintra) to the director, who had directed him twenty years earlier, on the Shoes. “It had never occurred to me how eternity could be so bitter”. “What have you done all these years?”. “I’ve been here waiting for you.”. “Waiting for me?”.
The greatest of the theater men of the 60s generation and the biggest of the cinema men of the same generation meet again, no longer being just one. They invented space to kill time and they invented time to dominate space. Good sense prevailed. God/Deus will give them life. And the most moving shot about a generation is the one of Luís Miguel Cintra, seeing João de Deus going away, with a movement from his throat, as he was gulping.
Twenty years we have lived in the house of the dead, or in the yellow house. João César Monteiro/ João de Deus resurrected to tell it to us all. It’s a “Lusitanian comedy”. Is it a Portuguese tragedy? Is it a genre film? As João de Deus answered Henrique Viana, who asked him if The Death of Empedocles (Hölderlin’s, or Straub’s?) belongs to the crime genre, his exact answer is: “No! It’s heavenly”. That’s the film’s genre.
Alone against the stars, like in the end of Silvestre, this is a sacred film. It’s also – once again – a great romantic film. Imaginations have been worn out trying to think of kinships. Read Cesário [Cesário Verde], the one from Sentimento de um Ocidental (The Feeling of a Westerner): “Human Pain, like a baleful sea,/ Seeks vast horizons for its bitter tides!” [translation: Richard Zenith]. It’s possible to journey through these Recollections with Cesário’s poem as a flashlight. Whoever gets disoriented, can orient himself with it. To reach the same verse and the same conclusion. Dreyer’s sheet and Murnau’s shadow. My sons, these are the films that, setting down on Earth, will bring clarity to your lives. To all lives.
JOÃO BÉNARD DA COSTA (The translation was a bit rushed, please tell me if you find anything wrong. Also, are the accents displaying correctly?)
Last edited by PGonzalez
on May 23rd, 2018, 9:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.