Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Baron – review

Director: Edgar Pêra

Release date: 2011

Contains spoilers

O Barão, in Portugese, this is a film based on a piece of Portuguese literature by Branquinho da Fonseca (which is by no means a vampire story) but it also owes a great debt both to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (or the opening Transylvania section at least) and, probably more importantly, to the legacy of films that Dracula spawned. The film is an intertextual delight and starts by making its own (false) historical narrative. I’d like to reproduce that and make some comments as I do.

one of the strange characters we meet
We begin with the following: “During the second world war, an American crew of B-Movies took refuge in Lisbon. In 1943, producer Valerie Lewton” perhaps a gender-swapped reference to American producer Val Lewton and the date corresponds to the publication of da Fonseca's story “married a Portuguese actor that read her "The Baron" by Branquinho da Fonseca. A story about a tyrant who ruled the Barroso’s Mountains. Valerie recognized potential in the text for a “Draculian” movie.” This is the direct tie, of course, with Dracula and the vampire genre. “They shot it secretly in a factory in Barreiro. During the day they shot the American version at night the Portuguese version.” This tied the film directly to the Tod Browning movie – which this apes to some degree – and we have to remember that Universal shot the English language version during the day and then the Spanish language version at night.

Miguel Sermão as the Guard
The text continues: The dictator heard about the movie and ordered the film to be destroyed.” And whilst this clearly refers to António de Oliveira Salazar, I couldn’t but help think that it also referred to Florence Stoker and her order, after winning her copyright case, that Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens be destroyed. “The crew was repatriated. The Portuguese actors were deported to Tarrafal's Concentration camp. They were tortured to death in the "skillet", a cubicle where humans were roasted..” Bringing the horrors of the dictatorship to the fore and projecting them into the present in the line: “In 2005, 2 reels and the screenplay were found in the archives of Barreiro's kino-club. During the next 5 years the film was restored and reshot. In 2011, was shown for the first time.

Marina Albuquerque as the teacher
Of course, vampire films and novels rely on intertextuality, reference upon reference – sometimes purposeful but sometimes the emergence of a “genre memory” and Edgar Pêra boxes very clever by both using the “genre memory” and by creating a false memory that adds to the reading of the film. More so as there is little vampiric within the film but we know we are watching a vampire film and it begins with a school inspector (Marcos Barbosa) travelling in a carriage towards his next appointment. In the story the Inspector begins the story at the town and this carriage journey is entirely invented for the film.

in the carriage
Comparing the two, Da Fonseca’s story gives a sense that the Inspector is unlike Jonathan Harker (from Stoker) as he is weary of and resents travel, which is a duty, whereas Harker is as much a wide-eyed tourist as on business. Harker makes specific mention of the "imaginative whirlpool" of the Carpathians condensing a mass of superstitions, as well as the various cultures he encounters, whereas the inspector dismisses folklore as he is not an ethnographer. In many respects, in this film, he becomes Renfield in the 1931 movie – who replaced Harker on the journey into the Carpathians and whom we first meet in a carriage. A group of children fight nosily over a rosary that their grandmother (Paula Só) never actually gives him (for his mother’s sake). One of the children is sick and he is less than impressed and calls the carriage to a halt, the grandmother states it is only food and points out that the sun is setting, urging the driver to go on.

boar's headed man
As the carriage goes on the Inspector dreams of being out in the wilds. He holds a pitchfork as a figure rushes towards him – a man with a boar’s head. It’s a foreshadowing but its also a surreal moment and I was reminded of the work of Guy Maddin, not just in this scene but often through the film. This came through both the surreality but also through the skill with which a period film was rendered by a modern filmmaker. It is also notable because the film itself is like a dream, a rendering of subconscious explorations.

Joana Loureiro as the old woman
As the Inspector reaches a village I was also reminded of another film. We see a man peering at the Inspector, and then he speaks to an old woman (Joana Loureiro) in the inn and I couldn’t help but think, as we looked at the glorious portraits, drawn on screen, of characterful faces, of the film Vampyr. Dreyer chose much of his cast from locals who looked the part, and it struck me that Pêra may well have done similar when choosing his supporting cast.

the Baron's special wine
However, when we meet the Baron (Nuno Melo), we see the perfection of the casting. The Baron is so imposing, his presence dominating the screen. At one point, when they get to the castle, he insists that the Inspector stay for a week, much as Dracula insisted Harker stayed (for a month). The Baron brings in a drinks trolley – making the hungry Inspector take a drink he doesn't want, but taking a select bottle for himself, the liquid inside suspiciously thick. This plays around the edges of “I do not drink… wine” actually going as far as the Baron declaring “I do not eat” (which is taken from the original story). Eventually the inspector accuses him of feeding on the past – part of that undead memory, and a reference to the intertextuality of the genre.

the orchestra
Another example is a pit, with a metal grate, in the primary room of the castle. We see dogs jumping at the grate at one-point snarling and barking. Later the Baron calls for his orchestra and the musicians emerge, like a pack of rogues, from that self-same area. The original story does have specific mentions of dogs in it, but not located in the same place, and features the orchestra, but there is no associating them directly with the dogs as the film does. Their music encourages he Baron and even the Inspector to dance but I couldn’t help but think of the line “...children of the night. What music they make!” One imagined that the dogs had become the musicians.

a moment of colour
One part I must mention is the ending, which is very different to that of the original story (and of course will be a massive spoiler). In the story the Baron is injured and the Inspector leaves but seeks to return at some point to meet the Baron again. In this the Inspector attends the Baron on his death bed, looking greatly aged though it is only the next day, but the Baron ensures, in a sense, that he will live on. When the Inspector accedes to the request the Baron draws his last breath and the scene becomes, momentarily, colour. As it fades back to black and white the Baron expires but, in a trick of photography, seems also to turn to stone.

Nuno Melo as O Barão
There is so much more that could be explored within the film but I will leave it there. It is most definitely an arthouse film and absolutely oneiric. As such it is not a casual watch, an easy watch or, even, a preferable watch if that sort of film is not your thing. It is a film that makes you think, especially if you have a knowledge of the genre (arguably that knowledge is almost a prerequisite of getting the most out of the film – as the Baron oft repeats, “I’m the one in charge”, and as a personification of the genre he certainly is). Beautifully composed with a magnificent performance by Nuno Melo. 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


KirsiM said...

Sounds really interesting!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hey Kirsi, good to hear from you. You know, it really is... I was very impressed.

cine sapiens said...

Congratulations, you have guessed almost everything!
edgar pêra

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Edgar - thank you for stopping by and, even more so, thank you for the magnificent film.

cine sapiens said...

All your guesses are correct, just one thing: besides the Florence Stoker episode, I was referring to the prohibition by the fascist regime of The Baron play adaptation (by Sttau Monteiro) , because they thought that the protagonist was a a portrait of the portuguese Dictator. I wish there were more critics so attentive as you are.
edgar pêra

cine sapiens said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Taliesin_ttlg said...

Edgar, I've deleted a comment as you marked it as a private link. Unfortunately the link doesn't appear to go anywhere for me.

Thanks you, however, for your kind words and for the info re the play adaptation

cine sapiens said...
a private link for you and your readers. I hope it works now.
PS: there are some people who believed in my story anyway: a journalist asked me once what were my feelings when I found the "lost Baron film" (I just said it was "indescriptible" as I was trying not to laugh. And in Japan they did a double bill session with a Val Lewton film and The Baron as they were made by the same producer :)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Brilliant :)

And many thanks for the link, it does work now

KirsiM said...

Thank you so much for the link!

Vladkergan said...

Seem very interesting. I need to watch this for a french review on, thanks Andy for the discovery (and the review).