By Serge Daney
On ‘Trás-os-Montes’ by António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro. Originally published as ‘Loin des Lois’ in Cahiers du Cinéma n° 276 (May 1977), as part of a report on the ‘Journées cinématographiques de Poitiers’ of February 1977, dedicated to Portugese Cinema. ‘Trás-os-Montes’ was part of the programme ‘Once was Fire‘, shown on the Courtisane Festival 2013.
Towards the end of the film, a man teaches his son – a little boy – the basics of fishing. The boat glides over the calm water, the camera frames the shores, which are rocky, looming, equally calm. A voice (the child’s) makes itself heard. It says: “Alemanha …” A voice-over – but it does not affirm or question anything, it rather exerts itself, dreaming aloud. Then, in the same tone: “Espanha …”. What the image indicates is indeed the nearby Spain, behind the screen of mountains. But the voice that says “Espanha” does not speak louder than the other one, it does not correct it. It means that Germany is also there in the enunciation of the child. Later in the film, the rhyme will be completed in a reading of a letter sent by a father from Germany, where he emigrated to. So it is not one or the other, it is both countries at once, each reduced to one word. There is Spain as the off-image, beyond the look, and Germany as the off-sound, beneath the voice. A zone of dream and anguish separates and binds them: that which is called a “shot”.
Distanciation is the subject of the film that António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro have made in the Trás-os-Montes region (from which the film takes its title) in 1976. In the double sense of being far away (in exile) and the act itself of distancing (out of sight, and then into oblivion). Distanciation, Reis and Cordeiro tell us bit by bit, is the history of this Northeast of Portugal. It is the distant, incomprehensible and uncomprehending domination of the Capital (Lisbon) on Trás-os-Montes. To the extent that the Law enacted by the capital does not reach the farmers and they ask themselves: do they exist alone? Key scene in the film is the one in which Reis translated an extract from Kafka’s The Great Wall of China into dialect – key scene in that we’ve seen the issue put itself to rest tragically, in reality, in 1976. Distanciation de-culturising the province, cutting it off from its Celtic and pagan past, folklorizing the crumbs of popular culture in the form of postcards. Distanciation of the farmers from the cultivated fields and pastures, first to the mines in the area (beautiful scene with Armando, the abandoned child, dripping with rain), then to America (the father, never seen, suddenly returns from Argentina and leaves right away), and finally to Europe, plants and chains, França, Alemanha.
The distanciation (or its opposite: approximation) that interests the authors of Trás-os-Montes occurs in the here and now of the present. It is not the desolate dust of what is buried, the grievance of time passing by or the presentation of treasures that serve no-one (if not a necrophiliac audience, in the service of the “Knowledge of the World”). It is a much more demanding operation: to point out what in the shot (a zone of dream and anguish, I remind you) refers to elsewhere and in doing so construct, little by little, what we might call “the cinematic state of a province”. And in order to do that, Reis and Cordeiro above all do not start from the fact of the official existence of Trás-os-Montes (one of geographical maps or the bureaucracy of Lisbon), but from the opposite: from the excavation, the introcision of each “shot”, like the river already mentioned hollowing out its streamline between Spain and Germany and making its way into Portugal.
Distanciation is not only a theme (about which we can chatter, demonstrate knowledge or forge some criticism), it is also the matter of the film Trás-os-Montes. The muffled enonciation of each shot utters the same question: are there different degrees in the off? Can we be more (Alemanha) or less (Spanha) off? In other words, what is the status – the quality of being – of what comes out of the shot (of what it expresses and expels)? We guess that the answer that we give is this one (the entire enjoyment of cinema depends on it): in the off, there are no degrees. When you are far away, even if it is at the next door, in cinema, you are forever lost. This is how could be summed up, in a typically obsessive formula, the dialectics of the in and off in modern cinema. And one should add, for the indetermination to be complete: and if you come back, what can prove to me that it is still you?
The “seamless garment of reality” Bazin dreamt about is always sheared by the frame, by montage, by everything that chooses. But even patched up (repaired) by a counter-shot sewing it together, it is inhabited by a fundamental horror, a malaise: what shot A showed and what shot B has evaded may very well return in shot C, however twisted, without proof that it did not become something other. Anything that goes through the off limbo is likely to return as other. However keen on narration and representation, people like Lang or Tourneur (continued today by Jacquot or Biette) only filmed because this other, this doubt within the same, was possible, as generator of horror or comedy (see Buñuel who is the main spring). I seem to forget the film of Reis, but I’m not. As proof I’d like to point out the astonishing last scene in which a train pierces through the night, followed, one might say forcibly by the camera that not always distinguishes it from the dark and that continues to rediscover it (fort/da), either in the form of smoke (for the eye), or as a whistle (for the ear).
For him, there are no more degrees in temporal distanciation than there are in spatial distanciation. No more recent memory than long memory. Anything that is not there is, a priori, equally lost and thus, this is the important point, to be produced. Rupture with a linear, gradualist conception of loss (of sight or memory) in favor of a dynamic, heterogeneous, material conception. Because production means two things: a commodity is produced (by work) but also a presentation (when necessary). Cinema = presentation + work. Thus, despite their erudition, Reis and Cordeiro always behave as if they had to learn for themselves what they were going to communicate to a spectator who is equally ignorant. We must take Reis seriously when he speaks in the interview of “tabula rasa”. And it is not certain that this attitude is not, ultimately, better than one starting from the knowledge or supposed knowledge of the spectator, when it is not starting from a common doxa (generator, like any doxa, of satiated laziness, especially devastating in the leftist fictions). Rather, I am inclined to think that it is better – whatever side one is on from the camera – to put into practice the mizoguchien saying: wash your eyes between each shot.
Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translations).
In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts