World cinema darling Leonor Baldaque stars in Eugene Green’s The Portuguese Nun (2009), an unconventional adaptation of the 17th century text Letters of a Portuguese Nun – a collection of love notes which begin passionately before slowly filtering through varying conflicts of faith, feelings of despair and eventually tragedy. Rising French actress Julie (Baldaque) arrives in the Portuguese city of Lisbon to film a lavish costume drama based on the aforementioned novel. Our female protagonist plays the titular nun, with her only other co-star playing the French naval officer who whisks her off her feet.
She’s already recorded the dialogue back home in Paris and all that remains is to shoot the visuals which will accompany her monologue, giving her plenty of down time to become acquainted with the city – leading to a series of bizarre, yet eye-opening encounters with various similarly lost souls. Featuring a fascinating collection of ideas that mirror the books multifaceted narrative The Portuguese Nun manages to examine the dichotomy of spirituality and the secular world, fate and divine will, love and loneliness and even life and art.
The latter is expressed not through the movie adaptation Julie is in Lisbon to film but rather the actions of her character. Green’s often infuriating, yet ultimately enlightening film offers up a multitude of answers without ever being precisely clear on the questions being asked. Whilst commendable for its rich tapestry of ideas the experimental style which Green has chosen to film his subtle metaphysical tale may not be to everyone’s taste.
Despite numerous picturesque wide angled shots that help us become as intoxicated with Lisbon as Julie the film’s methodical and solemn approach results in a noticeably languid pace which is likely to deter many audiences. Add to this the jolting effect of copious incidents were Green’s characters break the forth wall and the eccentric use of claustrophobic frontal shots during dialogue scenes and you have a film destined to alienate all but the most discerning of art house patrons.
The Portuguese Nun’s incredibly rigid compositions and stunted dialogue means its fascinating montage of existential ideas will remain an acquired taste – a fact made clear by a conversation between Julie and her makeup artist. Whilst describing the film she’s making Julie refers to it as “unconventional” followed swiftly by a brutally honest reply from the makeup artist of “so boring then?”. Both women are correct, but regardless, The Portuguese Nun is a film which deserves a thoroughly detailed investigation to truly be appreciated.