Maria de Medeiros, later of Pulp Fiction and The Saddest Music in the World, makes her debut as a 17-year-old with a heart-shaped Lil Folks face in Silvestre, the film which kicks off BAM ‘s retrospective of the “Perverse Poet” of Portuguese cinema, Joao Cesar Monteiro. (L contributor Nick Pinkerton previews the series for the Voice.) Monteiro melds a couple of different folktales together for his plot, and, with a sort of reverentially hushed tone, assembles the film from a bricolage of experimental techniques, artifices and dreamy elisions and leaps of logic, getting at the way mythologies are assembled from oft-disparate stories.
Medeiros is Silvia, beloved daughter of a provincial nobleman; the film is initially occupied by the sagas of her betrothals, first to a boorish landowner. Father leaves—”Salt in the meat, cattle in their pens, and the bolt on the door” are his departing instructions; the formal dialogue is lovely throughout—and, while he’s away, though, Silvia and her older half-sister (we never see either mother) open the door to a mysterious visitor, bearing drugged oranges, a glowing hand, sexual knowledge, and possibly a lupine alter-ego. (The mysterious wolf-man visitor, bringing sexual knowledge, and danger, will be familiar to fans of another postmodern fairytale assemblage, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves.) Another (or the same) mysterious visitor disrupts Silvia’s wedding banquet, slays a previously unmentioned dragon, and takes the bride as his prize. This chapter, with the young wife trapped in the castle of her gloomy, possible murderous older husband, recalls the Bluebeard tale, and indeed Catherine Breillat’s recent Bluebeard would be, along with Company of Wolves a point of comparison for Silvestre‘s fairytale deconstruction, and exploration of the difficult differences in age and experience (especially sexual) between two emotionally close sisters; Breillat’s film is also quite similar in tone to Monteiro’s, with its rapt sound design and clean, minimal depictions of medieval ritual.
The film earns its title more than halfway in, when Silvia crops her hair and goes to war in search of her father; the discontinuous narrative, less a cohesive plot than a theme and variations, is in keeping with Monteiro’s eclectic style. Though Silvia is first glimpsed mid-freshwater frolic—there are some lovely magic-hour exteriors throughout—the film is mostly stage-bound. Interiors are three-walled proscenium sets, mostly shot at a distance, for a tableau effect not so unlike one of the illustrated manuscripts that open and close the film; exteriors are mostly projected or painted backdrops; scenes of action are elided, or occur while Monteiro holds a freeze-frame, or are staged in a sort of stripped-down symbolism (as in Eugene Green). The movie feels almost primal, the way a folktale does—a skeletal, handed-down story that we fill in with our own vivid, racing imaginations.