Guimarães is a city in Northern Portugal and is the current European Capital of Culture. To celebrate this prestigious title being bestowed upon them, the city commissioned this portmanteau film from four hugely respected art-house directors, each to tell a story about Guimarães in whatever way they saw fit. However, one thing that is guaranteed when you work with four such unique talents is that this won’t be a mere tourism advert for the region – in fact one of the stories is a short, sharp satire that pokes fun at tourists. Instead, the audience is presented with four films of entirely different tones, with very little linking them – apart from the city itself (and Pedro Costa barely even bothers with that!). This leaves something of a mixed bag in terms of accessibility and enjoyment.
The first and best of the shorts, Tavern Man, is by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. It’s the wordless tale of a barman who runs everything himself, from laying out the tables to cooking a salty cabbage soup. The same old drinkers come to the bar, but the tavern man has aspirations to draw in different crowds. He’s a tragicomic figure: his hapless attempts at cooking and business sense are oddly funny, yet there’s something incredibly upsetting about his virtually empty menu board which only offers soup, or the way that his cooking doesn’t meet even his own standards. Part of the emotional impact comes from the lead actor Ilkka Koivula, whose haggard features betray a desperate loneliness. Kaurismäki frames everything with remarkable precision and paces the short perfectly so that it stirs, but doesn’t manipulate, emotions. It’s an astonishing talent that can break your heart and make you laugh simultaneously.
Pedro Costa’s Sweet Exorcist is incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t have deep knowledge of either Portugese history or his last film Colossal Youth, which shares a main character with this short. A haunting night on the hills outside Guimarães precedes the core of the film, which takes place entirely inside a lift containing an old man and a demon in the form of a soldier with his eyes closed. They talk to each other about war and revolution. Costa creates a tense atmosphere, and it is formally daring, but this film largely baffles rather than engages.
Legendary director Victor Erice dials back his formidable talent as a creative fiction director with his entry Broken Windows as he simply listens to a series of stories by some workers from a now defunct textile factory. Each of the workers’ stories brings out a new theme about life in the factory, but these themes only really become resonant when Erice invites each of the storytellers to turn around and face an old black and white photograph of factory workers at lunch. Their reactions to the photo are incredibly telling, as they each have different views of the past: some envy these workers, others pity them. Importantly, every single one of them is stirred and provoked by this photo. This isn’t rampant nostalgia, it’s a thoughtful meditation on how we view the past. A montage of faces to a mournful piece of accordion music, played in-camera, draws these themes together to pack a powerful punch.
The final segment, The Conquered Conqueror, is short but amusing, as Manoel de Oliveira – who is 104 years old! – passes comment on the tourist culture in the city centre. The short has a great final shot and is a welcome lighthearted relief from the preceding seriousness. It is also the best at actually showing us a bit of the city that is being represented.
Historic Centre is playing at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22 & 26 June