Still Life

Susana de Sousa Dias

Portugal 2005, 1h 12min.

We know about Portugal as a colonial power and about the atrocities perpetrated in African countries like Angola and Mozambique. We have read about it, we have seen documentaries and reportages. Yet we are completely ignorant of what it was like to live under such oppression.

This film helps us to perceive the trauma experienced by a nation that was systematically tormented by a dictatorship built on – as stressed in a text before the film starts – three pillars: the church, the army and the police. With wordless b/w archive sequences, you the viewer are constantly invited to create your own thoughts and stories behind the faces looking out at you with sad, helpless eyes. How could this happen, you ask yourself. How was it possible to control a nation’s soul like this?

A series of photos of prisoners constitutes the backbone of the narrative, cutting to military parades and church processions, or to policemen beating up demonstrators, or to black grown-ups or children entertaining the bourgeoisie with dance. Or to the face of a child smiling briefly. Back to photos of the prisoners, portrayed as criminals: full face, left profile, right profile.

The almost meditative tone of the film, one that makes your mind take associative routes in each sequence, comes from the aesthetic choice of the filmmaker. Throughout the film, archive sequences are slowed to prolong the moment and make it signify something more than we actually see. A metaphor maybe, a symbol perhaps, for sure unique ‘still life’ as the title indicates. The emotional impact is neither shocking nor dramatic but corresponds to the basic filmic expression of the suffering of a nation and its people, completely controlled through brutality and fear. The film’s music is actually designed to guide us on this visual, mental tour with its metallic, monotonous, unrealistic, unnatural clang that does not try to impose any sentimental interpretation on the viewer. It is contrapuntal, which is why the effect is so powerful.

The Man comes back from time to time. He appears on a balcony in front of some microphones looking down, in complete ideological control. At the end of the film an old man sits in his leather armchair preparing to speak to his people. A crippled man is crawling on the ground in the next sequence. And then comes 1974, the carnation revolution. Here described briefly and positively, but not as an explosion of relief and joy.

Modern Times Review