In the last of the correspondence exchanged on the two shores of the Atlantic between State of art and To Walsh’s Palate, Luís Mendonça asks if it is possible to establish a friendly relationship with a film to the point where we feel embraced by it. I answer that not only that, there are films whose friendship becomes so dear to us that we need to introduce them to other friends of ours – individuals, by the way. This business of introducing mutual friends who do not yet know each other is always delicate. When one of the parties seems awkward in their ways, there can be disastrous results in misjudgments and the likely connection is broken before it starts. In these cases, extra attention is required. I come here to introduce my friend Xavier (1991-2002). Some people find him strange when they meet him, but after giving him a chance, it’s impossible not to want to introduce him to so many other friends.
Xavier it may seem at first sight somewhat unbalanced, or unfinished, and it would not be for nothing given its story, which has already been told so many times, including in the pala, of his interrupted filming before the conclusions and his eleven years of struggles for an end. But make no mistake: Xavier it’s perfect as it is, flawed and without apologies or manners – like those people who aren’t the lifeblood of the party, but who we can always trust.
Manuel Mozos, its director, tirelessly proved over the years his ability to take ruins and make them cathedrals, in fiction and documentaries. Xavier is no different. Here we have some of the most daring cuts and ellipses in Portuguese cinema. But the spectator who is in the first contact with the film may find its gaps, its few explanations and resolutions strange. Xavier it is a survivor and acts on its terms – film and character. We gain more by listening to them.
Xavier, character, played by Pedro Hestnes in the biggest performance of his career, he is a restless young man looking for his place in Lisbon. Left by his mother in an orphanage as a child, sponsored by a rich family (the Alves), he made a mistake in a traffic recklessness (he ran over a girl) for which he has to pay the legal process – 50 thousand pieces of money, which could well be a billion for someone who has nothing and in the beginning of life. He walks around the city, meeting friends, women and jobs, but always carrying a nuisance and the weight of everyone on his chest. Nothing is certain in his days and the only things that really belong to him are his mother – dumb and suicidal, played by Isabel Ruth – and Hipólito’s friendship, lived by José Meireles, loyal since his days in the orphanage’s courtyard.
Hippolyte is the ying perfect of yang by Xavier: cheerful, vivacious, outgoing, strong and tanned – little is said about Meireles’ luminous performance. It is also unrestrained and childish, hence its tendency to easily exit from less legal means – to which Xavier had become so attached, already wounded by the labyrinths of Justice. And generous: he practically adopts a boy, Quim, in a relationship more of brotherhood than fatherhood, and he commits small thefts to give gifts to people around him – including Xavier, when he reveals himself as the only person willing to help in a concrete way to take his mother from the asylum. A noble vagabond.
It is in the name of this friendship that Hipólito prevents Xavier from getting into the car and taking the same no-return destination he chose for himself. A tragic sacrifice and few words – “not you”, and a flat hand – because it is not necessary to say much or anything beyond Meireles’s eyes.
The truth is that this is a film full of silences because it deals with feelings and situations that are difficult to name, especially when younger, full of discoveries. And yet Mozos shows us everything.
Or almost, as there are things that shouldn’t be shown – like the death of Xavier’s mother, resolved with a street lamp that was broken and violently extinguished.
There is hope, we learn from our mistakes, seems to say Mozos. Not a lot, but enough.
It is also a film haunted by death since its first scenes, when his mother leaves Xavier at the orphanage and then abruptly disappears between cars and train. During the projection, we see two funerals, some mourning and many mentions of death, and so many mismatches that add up to the point where we are never sure if we’ll meet again the characters who leave the scene. The “death” surrounded the film itself, which for very little would simply not exist. The film was only completed and released thanks to the unshakable determination of Manuel Mozos and the help of Paulo Rocha, who took over the production of the film and returned it to the world. Logo Rocha, director of the green years (1963), sort of the mother film of Xavier – in yet another wheel of life that this film draws in and out of itself. From a film full of circularities – maybe we all just walk in circles in life, after all – this extra-film is one of its strongest. Xavier makes direct mentions to the green years in the walks of its protagonist with Rosa in the city limits, in these fields being devoured by buildings on the horizon, in the malaise and inadequacy with urbanity, in the boiling youth and, especially, in the presence of Isabel Ruth. Mozos himself has already mentioned seeing physical similarities between Hestnes and the young Rui Gomes and that, if the end of Rocha’s film had been different, his Xavier could have been Ilda’s son. These two films most remembered for the presence of death creeping into its center are actually some of the greatest cries of the will to exist, in life and in cinema.
Maybe that’s why we are so moved by Xavier’s struggle to be alive and keep his head held high, in one of the many dead-end jobs that he accumulates along the way, almost an inventory of invisible professions. Or that each approximation of bodies in this film is so full of heat – by the way, Xavier it’s also one of those cases where all the people appearing in front of the camera are beautiful, as if the most beautiful inhabitants of the country had decided to be part of the film; there are many women on the street exchanging glances with Xavier, in invitations that are often unnoticed, as are many films that did not take place.
However, we continued walking determinedly in circles. Whether in the circular music of Mariana Ricardo that surrounds the entire film, or in the fado sung by Fernanda (“love makes me feel so bad (…) and I repeated all the mistakes I made then”), or in the eternal returns to the same places in the film, or in the same attitudes, small and large – as in the mad race in a car that Xavier launches on the night of his mother’s death, now with Luísa as a passenger, with a fundamental difference: Xavier manages to stop the car at the last moment, without hurting him nobody. There is hope, we learn from our mistakes, seems to say Mozos. Not a lot, but enough.
Xavier, a Portuguese Holden Caulfield, a daring boy with the suspended trapeze, a Bandini from Mouraria, the Heathcliff of the Alves family. O naughty boy that reveals itself wonder(ing) boy from Keats in the last, never-mentioned verses of the same poem that seems to guide the film:
“So he stood in his shoes
And he today,
he stood in his shoes
And he today.”
With the end of the film, we do not know where Xavier and his many other colleagues are going. But we can hope that they will be better somehow, even accumulating more losses and scars than achievements, as we so often do. And we can see them again, they are waiting for us because the film exists and this is what matters. Even though, scandalously, there isn’t even a good copy available on DVD – it’s up to us to imagine the crimson, yellows and blues in the tattered copy that so often circulates on the internet (the impressive ruins of Mozos, again).
Many lament about what would have happened if the film had been released at the time of the making, about a revolution that could have taken place. However, here we are, still sharing bread and fighting with Xavier. A film like this is revolutionary whenever you press the play. There’s a friend here for all hours.
Acknowledgments: to the fellow members of Clube do Filme do Atalante, where we debated this film. There is no criticism without conversations – be it video calls or overseas correspondence.
Film critic and one of the programmers at Cineclube do Atalante, at Cinemateca de Curitiba.
This text was published simultaneously in the to Walsh’s visor and in the State of the Art – Magazine of Culture, Arts and Ideas.