The location is Portugal in a village called Aldeia da Luz, which is scheduled to disappear because of a dam-building project. The inhabitants will be moved to a new village that has been built to re-house them.
In A luz submersa, shot over a three-year period, the camera follows some of the village families to experience their reactions to the irreversible fact that they must give up their homes, memories, history and culture. Naturally they are unhappy about it and feel upset with the way in which the authorities have built the new village and houses without really listening to the needs of the people who are affected by the project.
Seemingly, the director does not seek to communicate their anger as much as set up a cinematographic metaphor for a culture – “luz” means light – that is being put away in darkness. He wants this to be a monument of how things were before the change, and he insists on having us look at the beautiful white walls and the empty streets in a deserted village in long wordless sequences. Small, unpretentious conversations and episodes take us closer to some of the people in the village. The restaurant owner regrets that he has to move, his wife would rather not think about it. A man has written poems about life in the village, food, religious rituals and processions, two men look at the stars, the picking of olives, the harsh reality that the cemetery will also be flooded… and yet they say it’s no use suffering anymore, and they start to plant seed in new ground. Surviving. Making a world for the new generations.
Once you allow yourself to enter this slow paced film with an open mind, you stay there in the remote Portuguese village that shall be immersed under water. You do so because Fernando Matos Silva is an experienced, fine filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants. He made an excellent choice when he asked José Eduardo Rocha to make the music for the film. It completely enthrals you in an unsentimental way and gives a reflective distance to the subject – what Brecht called ‘Verfremdung’ – while at the same time you feel that a structure is linking the scenes in which nothing happens. Yes, it is built like a piece of music, a composition more than a story told from a to z. To support this classic cinematographic approach, much of the film mirrors a characteristic trend in new Portuguese documentary cinema where the camera also strives for accurate framing and a structure that in this case is often surrealistic.