Eugene Green’s The Portuguese Nun has a simple premise – French actress, Julie (Leonor Baldaque) comes to Lisbon to finish shooting a film. She sees a nun praying in a church and becomes fascinated by her.
Green’s film deals, however, with bigger themes – identity, language, spirituality, culture and the Baroque. Green still feels the influence of the Baroque on our present day as something that remains unresolved, that is, how matters of reason outstripped matters of faith.
The film’s opening conversation between the actress and the hotel clerk betrays these themes charmingly and cleverly, the characters switching between English, French and Portuguese and establishing the question of identity in their dialogue.
Here, too, the prevailing devices that give the film its entrancing potency appear for the first time. The characters at certain points of emotional connection, or a revelatory moment, address the camera directly, as Green puts it, to see ‘the inner energy that emerges’ from the speaker. This is also the reason for the highly simplified dialogue and restricted acting in the film. These restrictions allow a concentration of energy to be communicated and that energy itself flows with elegance through the film.
This opening exchange also reveals Green’s self-awareness and humour regarding the film he is making. ‘I never see French films,’ the hotel clerk tells Julie, ‘they’re for intellectuals.’ Later on, Julie explains the plot of the film she is working on to the make-up lady, who dismisses it thus: ‘ah – so it’s a boring film.’
But a boring film this is not. It may require patience, but it is a smart, thoughtful, charming and elevating work. Green’s love of Baroque theatre means that his use of Deus ex Machina to draw things to a conclusion is not clumsy or contrived, rather simply what happens in the present-world of the film.
Green uses several interesting aesthetic devices in The Portuguese Nun. Mise-en-Abyme, the film-within-a-film, is used here self-reflectively to make the characters aware of their own actions and drives. However, its use here also serves to sever the external world from the world in the film. The empty streets of Lisbon resemble a hermetic world, a mere stage for the events of the film and its players.
The art of the Baroque often brought God and Religion into reality and our awareness of a spiritual nature at work in the world increases. Julie’s search for her own identity becomes directed by this as she shifts between the selfish, elevated world of what is expected of her as an actress and the simple but moral world presented to her by her encounters in Lisbon.
The culture of Portugal is as ever present and influential as God himself in this film. The nun who Julie eventually speaks to talks of a time when people stopped believing in God and started believing in reason. ‘For once Portugal was avant-garde’. In The Portuguese Nun, Portugal becomes avant-garde once again – a place where faith becomes more important than reason, and where you can learn to ‘love to the point of disappearing.’