Paolo Marinou-Blanco / Portugal / 2007
From Alain Tanner’s In the White City to Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story, Portugal’s capital has often been a place where troubled characters wash up when there is nowhere left to go, and so it proves in the first film from Portuguese director Paolo Marinou-Blanco. Alex (played by Welsh actor Robert Pugh) is a cranky old actor who has somehow found his way to the Portuguese capital. An ex-actor, he ekes out a living prostituting what is left of his talent doing voice-overs for videos advertising package holidays. As Alex says, in one of the film’s many quotable lines: “My life until then had been simple. Unable to travel myself, I generously donated my voice to the travel industry, helping idiots from one part of the world get along with idiots from another”. Alex’s wife is dead, and he spends his widower existence taking pills to alleviate an unnamed ailment, drinking like a fish, and waiting to slip into oblivion. The first part of the film is occupied with Alex’s lonely existentialist musing, which feel a little like a cranky version of Paul Schofield’s narration of Patrick Keiller’s films. Things change, however, when the narrative spring is sprung.
One day a new tenant moves into Alex’s building, a new tenant named Irene. Alex rudely refuses to help her lug her luggage up the stairs. In the best tradition of cinema, Irene rounds this rebuff and bursts into Alex’s world, barging aside his ill-humour and his objections, and chipping out a space for herself in his heart. And so, rather than Irene forgetting her misanthropic neighbour and leaving Alex to corrode slowly in the battery acid of his own bitterness, as in real life, here the story starts.
Irene is a painter, and she coerces Alex into sitting for her. In Goodnight Irene art in all its forms serves to bring people together and help everyone understand one another. As Irene paints his portrait, she slowly brings him back to life, and gives him the material for the last role of his life, which is, in a sense, what Goodnight Irene is about. Crucial to this role is Bruno, Irene’s other sitter. Bruno is the neighbourhood locksmith and an almost mute loner. He makes copies of people’s keys so that he can break into the houses that surround his own, not to steal their valuables, but to borrow elements of their lives. These he copies and assembles into a sort of personal museum of the neighbourhood, an archive of everything that risks being forgot, a synthetic memory that comforts him in the absence of his far-flung family.
One day, after a heated telephone conversation in Spanish, Irene vanishes from Alex and Bruno’s lives. Bruno and Alex slowly join forces to search for her, overcoming their mutual suspicion, but what they discover is one another. An Indian summer breaks the bitter winter of Alex’s life, and Bruno begins to discover the inner resources to piece together the broken memories of his own life.
Perhaps of necessity, given the plot and subject matter, Goodnight Irene is at times a disjointed film, but one that repays your patience if you wait out the occasional longueurs. Pugh turns in a fine performance as Alex, as does Rita Loureiro as the mercurial Irene and Nuno Lopes, who for all the world looks like a Portuguese Paul McGann, as the physically nimble but socially fumbling Bruno. The dialogue between the three central characters, which switches from English to Portuguese and back again, is particularly well handled. This chopping and changing might sound like a recipe for disaster, but Marinou-Blanco and the actors really make it work here, without the characters’ exchanges feeling forced or artificial.
Whilst Marinou-Blanco’s use of the physical space of Lisbon is nothing new, it really captures the feel of the city, with its rich palette of colours and cross-river ferry rides, its stone staircases and creaking old apartments. The tweeness of something like Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story, with its tourist brochure turns, is totally absent. The choice of a klezmer soundtrack over the too-obvious appeal of Fado (which would have been totally out of kilter with Alex’s whisky-driven pugnaciousness) is a happy one. The energy of the music gives Goodnight Irene an almost Balkan feel to some parts and ties the narrative together, especially in the middle section where the two men are eddying through life in an Irene-less limbo. In the choice of music, as in the film’s narrative arc, the pull of the vital Mediterranean seems stronger than the tide out into the melancholy Atlantic, and fits well the film’s theme of choosing an active engagement in life over an existence based on withdrawal and renunciation.
Goodnight Irene is not particularly original, although it does feel like something new within the panorama of Portuguese cinema. Its tale of the discovery of life through art, music, light and friendship is ultimately an enriching one. It is a good film to take someone who is important to you to see, and to remind them of their importance to you afterwards.