Tiago Guedes’ latest The Domain dissects a wealthy Portuguese family in the second half of the 20th century as a libertarian young patriarch struggles with duty, family, politics and his own personal destructive freedom.
We’re in Portugal 1943, and a father shows his young son the swinging corpse of his older brother who has hung himself on a tree in the grounds of the enormous family estate. “Remember when it finishes, it finishes,” is the harsh lesson the child receives and one he understandably flees from. It’s a beautiful if harsh prologue to a film which is part-Giant, part-Wuthering Heights. Joao Fernandez (Albano Jeronimo) will grow up to be a handsome young prince with sideburns that could trip up any beauty, plus a powerful physique made for riding horses and gracing sports cars.
We first see Joao facing off against a member of the government who is insisting on a public show of support, something he is – with the protection also of a powerful father-in-law – stubbornly refusing to give. He treats his own workers with patrician courtesy and he even winks at his mechanic, a sworn communist. Meanwhile, his wife Leonor (Sandra Faliero) attracts his attention less and less. Like his father before him, he takes lovers from everywhere and anywhere, also claiming Rosa (Ana Vilela da Costa) his housemaid and the wife of his factotum Joaquim (Miguel Borges), almost as if the droit du seigneur were still in force. He is far less impressed by his son Miguel ( João Pedro Mamede), shouting at the mop-haired child and forever galled by his perceived weakness.
The 1974 Carnation Revolution sees the government fall from power, and Joao’s tolerance and his distance from the regime now seem prescient, granting him some breathing space even as elsewhere industries are being nationalised and his parents-in-law seek refuge in Joaoa’s attic. The storm appears to have been weathered as Rosa and Joaquim celebrate the arrival of new son the paternity of whom is an open secret. In another temporal leap, we arrive at the nineties. In a historic irony, it is now the banks who are taking the land in place of the communist: the children have grown and the parents now must deal with the consequences of so many liberties taken. With politics taking a back seat, the 1990s are more redolent of soap opera.
There are family arguments and the delayed revelations of secrets long-held which are gratingly familiar from a thousand miniseries and soap operas. But there is a genuine cinematic vision here. The camera of Joao Lanca Morais captures both the interiors of Joaoa’s estate and the huge skied vistas of his lands, coloured beautifully by the sun. There’s something of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 in both the sweep and the gorgeous look of the film. The cast is generally excellent, with Jeronimo exceptional in the lead. His Joao is a man of oral appetites – constantly smoking, and drinking – but there’s a joylessness to him as if he is only fulfilling his duty to fully consume the possibilities of his prosperity. He is a man who can enjoy life to the fullest while at the same time being deeply unhappy. He is matched by Faliero whose ruinous stoicism finally crumbles.
Guedes’ The Domain could be viewed through the simplistic notion of the new catchphrase ‘toxic masculinity’ and it certainly does reveal that. Lives are destroyed by Joao’s actions and yet, in the final analysis, it is a trait, for all his power, that he is powerless to stop. Like Citizen Kane, if he hadn’t been a rich man, he might have been a great one.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty