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A Life Less Ordinary: The Films of Joaquim Pinto

By Max Nelson on August 08, 2014 in Film Comment, Blog

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At first glance, the Portuguese filmmaker Joaquim Pinto’s two latest nonfiction features, released in the same year and both made in close collaboration with his husband Nuno Leonel, might seem puzzlingly out of synch. Both consist of continuous, single-speaker monologues layered over streams of images, which alternate between intimate portraits of the speaker and reverent, attentive studies of the natural world. In The New Testament of Jesus Christ According to John (13), a beginning-to-end recitation of John’s gospel by Pinto’s longtime friend and collaborator Luís Miguel Cintra, what’s spoken is a received—or revealed—text rather than one invented from scratch. That movie’s action is that of giving a pre-existing message the resonance, texture, vibration, and weight of a voice. Call it a kind of incarnation.

What Now? Remind Me

What Now? Remind Me, on the other hand, is a first-person diary film that Pinto began to assemble shortly after beginning a year-long experimental clinical trial for sufferers of HIV, a disease with which he has been living—in co-infection with Hepatitis C—for two decades. The question of how a text can be made to take on a voice—to call out to a listener—is central to the first film and slightly less relevant to the second. As I understand them, however, both movies are invitations to hear such a calling: from texts, from people, from animals and, above all, from the natural world.

Midway through What Now? Remind Me, Pinto looks back on the shooting of The New Testament. He takes the last lines of John’s gospel—“There are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written”—as a warning regarding “the limitation of text in relation to lived experience.” But the assumption behind What Now? Remind Me is, if anything, that the sum of an individual’s lived experience, and the world in which it is lived, can do the work that we often expect texts to do for us: to testify, to bear witness, to give news. It is a distinctly Christian film to the extent that it suggests that the world can be read in this way, and a firmly agnostic one in its refusal to say what, exactly, the news in question is.

What Now? Remind Me

Pinto was born in 1957 in the bustling coastal city of Porto. He was still in his late teens when, one morning in 1974, he heard a neighbor shouting at him to get out of bed: “The revolution has started!” That day, a bloodless civil uprising in Lisbon had overthrown the country’s authoritarian Estado Novo regime. “Over the next few months,” Pinto tells us in What Now?, “films formerly banned by the censorship flooded the cinemas”—Russian silents, stag films, Godard’s Contempt. He was stunned by Pasolini’s Teorema, which, like his own recent movies, is about the ways that matter can be both animated and destroyed by contact with something immaterial. The following November, when Pasolini was murdered, Pinto was living in East Germany, where he had received a grant to attend medical school. (The university accidentally enrolled him in Economics instead; he spent his time reading, going to free piano concerts, and, he tells us, hanging out with young Vietnamese immigrants.)

By 1976, Pinto had entered film school back in Portugal with the help of the filmmaker João César Monteiro, with whom he would develop a close working relationship during his long, accomplished career as a sound designer. Pinto’s filmography is essentially a condensed history of Portuguese cinema in the second half of the century: his first sound credit was for António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s Trás-os-Montes (76); his second, Raul Ruiz’s The Territory (81). (There is some wonderful footage in What Now? Remind Me of him hanging out on set with Serge Daney during the shoot of the Ruiz film.) He worked with Manoel de Oliveira on, among others, The Satin Slipper (85) and The Cannibals (88), and—through his own company—produced Monteiro’s classic Memories of the Yellow House (89).

His first two films as a director must have made for a jarring contrast with the formally radical high-modernist movies he was making at the time with Oliveira and Ruiz. Tall Stories (88) and Where the Sun Beats (89) are tough, compassionate, oddly muted melodramas set in thinly populated coastal towns. In each film, a handsome, sexually polymorphous male adolescent—Tall Stories’ Miguel is 12 and Where the Sun Beats’ Nuno 19—is caught haplessly between a much older guardian, a secretive young woman, and a seductive young man with whom she’s somehow entangled. This last figure inspires the boy with a mixture of envy, admiration and—more markedly in the second film—desire.

Tall Stories

From the start of his career as a director, Pinto had a remarkable ear for the rhythms of the natural world, and a skill at timing his movies to beat in step with their settings. (It’s the movement of the sea, more than the actions of any of the film’s characters, that sets the pace of Tall Stories.) It’s equally striking, re-watching Pinto’s earlier films from the vantage point of his later nonfiction work, how much of a natural he once was at staging confrontation scenes, first squeezing them dry of any melodramatic excess, then slowly embellishing them with revealing, superfluous gestures: a word left hanging, an involuntary movement of the hand, a sharp casting down of the eyes.

The most revelatory aspect of Pinto’s first two films, though, might be his willingness to shift his attention to figures outside the movie’s primary sphere of concern. To my eyes, the emotional climax of Tall Stories occurs in a dimly lit nocturnal shot just after the two male leads have driven away from the boarding house in which much of the film’s action takes place. As their car ascends a steep hill, the chambermaid Luisa—the older boy’s former conquest, and the object of the younger one’s timid advances—watches them move out of sight. In a long shot, Pinto’s camera lingers on her for a beat or two after their taillights have vanished, watching her lose herself in thought.

The young hero of Where the Sun Beats, a moodier, slightly chillier variation on Tall Stories’ narrative setup, is closer to the age of João, the seducer in Tall Stories, than to that of Miguel, the still-green innocent. With his sleepy, come-hither eyes and perpetually half-open lips, Nuno (António Pedro Figueiredo) arguably gives off a more powerful sexual presence than any character in the earlier movie. The role of the naïve outsider is filled by another, more peripheral character, and it’s one of Pinto’s most striking moves in the film that this boy, as opposed to Nuno, takes over the voiceover narration during one of the movie’s climactic scenes. The premise—a young man with a destabilizing erotic influence on everyone with whom he comes into contact disturbs the fragile equilibrium of a closed-off household—recalls that of Teorema, but Pinto’s film has a searching, luxuriant, digressive streak in which Pasolini, at least during the late Sixties, would never have let himself indulge.

The New Testament of Jesus Christ According to John

The key cinematic predecessor to The New Testament of Jesus Christ According to John is another film of Pasolini’s. The Gospel According to St. Matthew, an unadorned, neorealist dramatization of the life of Christ that Pasolini shot in 1964, is, like Pinto and Leonel’s film, a word-for-word re-staging of one of the canonical gospels from a director who came of age as a gay man in a heavily Catholicized country, committed himself to the Left early in life, and took little stock in the teachings or authority of the church. Pasolini’s project was to re-cast Christ as a kind of Marxist revolutionary; a newly published unproduced screenplay shows that he planned to do the same for St. Paul. The gospel of John lends itself less to such readings; its narrative logic is less that of political revolution than that of revelation, its Christ less a social critic than an embodiment of the Word. It is this theme, one senses, that most interested Pinto and Leonel, who transform The New Testament into a demonstration of what it looks like for a text to find a material voice: literally, by virtue of Cintra’s voiceover, and figuratively, in the movie’s stream of beguiling, tactile images.

This exercise in reading the physical world as a kind of mouthpiece for the revealed Word would, as it turned out, heavily inform Pinto’s next film. Near the midpoint of What Now? Remind Me, Joaquim, home alone, wanders up to Nuno’s room “looking for a meaning.” He scans the bookshelves, finding no fiction, only “books on botany, poetry, sacred books. I flick,” he tells us, “through St. Augustine’s Confessions, which I never wanted to read. The inventor of original sin? Of the Holy War?” No, thanks. The joke, of course, is that nearly every modern author who cares about finding a literary analogue for the process of introspection—from memoirists and personal essayists to autobiographical filmmakers—owes something to Augustine’s Confessions. The writer’s craft of intimate self-disclosure is essentially the art of confessing; it’s telling how often in What Now? Pinto turns his lightweight digital camera on himself for soliloquy-style scenes that, on a purely formal level, recall the tight, unflattering “confessional” close-ups pervasive on low-budget reality TV.

What Now? Remind Me (x 3)

At the same time, if the literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn is right to identify the memoir form’s “essentially religious DNA” in its “Augustinian preoccupation with bearing written witness to remarkable inner transformations,” then it’s unclear to what extent What Now? fits the bill as a spiritual autobiography—or, indeed, as a memoir at all. What is being borne witness to throughout the film is not, it seems to me, any sort of inner transformation on Pinto’s part, nor even the mere process of coping with illness. If there’s a component of religious DNA in Pinto’s work, it’s arguably less Augustinian than Franciscan. The one time we glimpse St. Francis in What Now?, it’s a statue of the friar playing with a dog, much as Joaquim and Nuno are seen playing again and again with their four canine companions: Rufus, the slobbering, affectionate elder whose medical affliction—a lump of fat on his chin that obstructs his breathing—makes him perhaps the favorite of the pack; Zorra, the introspective, quiet beauty who neglects her toys to study the phases of the moon; and Cookie and Bambi, less developed as characters but no less present throughout the film.

It often seems as if the further afield Pinto’s narration wanders, the more frequently his camera keeps coming back to images of the natural world for rejuvenation. The first shot in What Now? is of a slug inching across a swath of twigs; two of its most stunning and prolonged close-ups linger on, respectively, a bee crawling over a half-eaten burger and a dragonfly touching repeatedly down on and back off of a narrow reed. In indoor or urban settings, Pinto’s camera tends to clam up into fixed, slightly cramped shots; outdoors, it roams with unrestrained and eager curiosity. “We are too recent,” Pinto murmurs late in the film over a shot of the afternoon sky. “When we go back to dust, life will sigh with relief.” (The next cut is to Pinto fixed in place outside, silhouetted with the four dogs against the light of a full moon.) Slightly earlier, during a rambling—and, it must be said, somewhat preachy­—monologue on drug trafficking and plant extinction, he sighs that “we have lost our ritual relationship to plants.”

It’s in these moments, when the film’s mode of address is closer to that of a discourse or a sermon than an autobiographical confession, that What Now? Remind Me most reveals a “preoccupation with bearing witness.” The substance of its testimony, as well as that of The New Testament of Jesus Christ According to John, is that plants, animals, and natural phenomena have something to tell us—a message to reveal, a Word to make incarnate, an inheritance to bestow—that can only be heard by careful listening and re-listening, which is to say, recording. An hour into the film, Pinto quotes from a letter written in 1852 by the pioneering German evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel. “Dear father,” it begins, “that which for you represents reflection on the history of the world and the destiny of Man is for me, on an even higher level, the observing of nature.”

It is no coincidence that Pinto’s own body was on the brink of collapse as he made these curious inroads into nature’s power to speak and reveal. What Now? Remind Me is, after all, a film about chronic illness: pills, injections, sweat and convulsions, sleepless nights, crushing relapses and precarious holding patterns. Pinto tells us that it is because his current clinical trial involves an extended, mandatory period of rest that he has started flipping through old albums, remembering old acquaintances—the film is dedicated to Claudio Martínez, the editor on Where the Sun Beats, who passed away from AIDS in 2008—and indulging in longer stretches of reflection. And yet it was undoubtedly the experience of illness itself that gave Pinto such intimate access to—and awareness of—the world. Pinto is, in this respect, not far from the model set by St. Francis, who wrote his great nature poem “Canticle of the Sun”—with its invocations of “brother fire,” “sister moon” and mother earth—when his body was blind, broken, and worn down by years of self-imposed mortification.

What Pinto rejects in the Franciscan ethos is its emphasis on the willful denial of the body as a means of turning outward to nature, and, ultimately, to God. In What Now? Remind Me, caring for the body, ministering to its needs, easing its pains and gratifying its pleasures—one of the movie’s most tender passages depicts a brief, unsimulated sexual encounter between Nuno and Joaquim—is an extension of, rather than a distraction from, the task of attending to nature’s call. That nature, considered in the broadest and least personal terms possible, is an active agent of disease as well as a tender interlocutor and a passive victim, is something the movie does not fail to admit. (To cite only the most explicit example, a museum tour late in the film includes several detailed, anatomically correct models of genitals ravaged by syphilis.)

There is no guarantee, the movie suggests, that erasing one’s debts on the land (as Pinto, referencing Leviticus, puts it in one scene), becoming less “recent,” or regaining one’s “ritual relationship with plants,” will get one any closer to recouping the physical and emotional cost of being in a body. But Pinto, in what might be his most important deviation from the tradition of Christian literature he often invokes, refuses to stake his bets on an existence in some world after death. The price of the ticket to this world is, recoupable or not, already paid in full.

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