The Covid-19 crisis has taken its toll on film distribution and exhibition as we know it and there is no guaranteed that attending films in the near future will resemble anything like movie-going prior to the pandemic. This challenging situation has encouraged some distributors and filmmakers to come up with more innovative ways to reach their audience and one of them is to offer direct streaming options to viewers. This has resulted in some new movies receiving a world premiere showcase on the internet along with restored classics from aboard that never received an American release such as Paulo Rocha’s Os Verdes Anos aka The Green Years (1963), filmed in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital.
Thanks to the Portuguese Cinematheque under the supervision of Pedro Costa, a beautiful restoration of Rocha’s debut feature is available for streaming in the virtual cinema offerings on the Film at Lincoln Center website. Long considered a key work in Portugal’s Cinema Novo movement of the early 1960s, The Green Years is an eloquent and beautifully observed study of two working class youths from the provinces – Julio (Rui Gomes) and Ilda (Isabel Ruth) – trying to make a new life for themselves in the urbanized mecca of Lisbon. The narrative charts the budding romance between the young couple from an awkward first meeting through a troubled courtship, culminating in an unexpected and shocking denouement.
Paulo Rocha, not to be confused with Brazilian director Glauber Rocha, is almost unknown in the U.S. since none of his work ever received theatrical distribution here, nor are any of his films available domestically on DVD or Blu-Ray. In Portugal, however, Rocha is a celebrated filmmaker and his early work was influenced by the French New Wave and the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. He entered the film industry as an assistant to both Jean Renoir and Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira and his debut film, The Green Years, is indicative of his lifelong interest in depicting the disparities between cultural traditions and contemporary society in his native land. Interestingly enough, de Oliveira, who is arguably Portugal’s most famous director, has a bit part in The Green Years.
Rocha’s film unfolds as a story recounted in voice-over by Raul (Ruy Furtado), Julio’s uncle, who observes the Julio-Ilda courtship from start to finish. Although the young couple-to-be share similar working class backgrounds, they are distinctly different in their temperaments and expectations for their future. Julio, who gets a job at a shoe repair business, is given room and board by his uncle but quickly learns that improving his lot in life will be a long, slow journey. Ignoring his uncle’s advice – “Please remember you were born in a backward village and need to learn to hang on” – Julio’s naviete, impatience at paying his dues and his macho pride prove detrimental to his success.
In comparison, Ilda is much more open and adventurous in nature but also more realistic about economic opportunities. Working as a maid for a bourgeoise couple, she sees the gulf between the haves and have-nots of society and readily embraces the Lisbon lifestyle, whether it is learning a new dance or putting on a secret fashion show from her mistress’s wardrobe for Julio. It is only as the young couple’s relationship progresses that Ilda realizes Julio is ill-equipped to handle the responsibilities of adulthood.
Rui Gomes and Isabel Ruth are perfectly cast in the lead roles and make an attractive if emotionally-mismatched couple. But the film’s sudden twist at the end might seem seriously out of sync with the film’s non-melodramatic nature to some viewers and invite criticism of Gomes’ performance. True, he often comes across as inexpressive and awkward but those are defining aspects of his personality. He is also a late blooming adolescent as indicated in scenes where he creates a doll head out of a potato for a pack of young boys or a sequence where Ilda spies him hunting with a sling-shot in the woods. If you watch carefully you will see signs of his inner turmoil coming to a boil.
There are at least three or four moments in the film where Julio reveals a darker side. In one, Raul invites Julio out for drinks and they join Raul’s pals at a favorite bar. Julio gets drunk quickly and lashes out at his uncle for trying to control him and act like a father. He smashes a window and ends up fleeing the bar with a drunken Englishman. Despite their inability to understand each other, the duo wander the streets until they encounter a pair of prostitutes. In another sequence, Julio becomes sullen and silently reproachful after Ilda dances with a stranger at a public dance hall. For Ilda, it was an innocent mistake, for Julio, it was an act of betrayal.
In some ways, the haunting climax of The Green Years anticipates the equally disturbing conclusion to Edward Yang’s coming of age drama, A Brighter Summer Day (1991). Rocha’s film also shares some aesthetic and stylistic similarities with Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati (aka The Fiances) released the same year and another depiction of a fragile relationship affected by the stress of modern life.
One of the most memorable aspects of The Green Years is the evocative black and white cinematography of Luc Mirot, who only served as the chief cameraman on three films. Mirot vividly captures the alienating architecture of a new suburban neighborhood in Lisbon, an anonymous cluster of generic high-rise apartments (in the Avenida de Roma/Avenidas Novas district) which border a rural landscape of crumbling ruins, grassy fields and forests. It is this odd clash of the new and the old that predetermines the fate of Julio and Ilda. It also provides a sharp contrast against the historic and much more romantic city center of old Lisbon, glimpsed briefly in the film, when Julio, Ilda and Raul take in a sweeping vista of the city’s waterfront and St. Jorge Castle, the highest point in Lisbon.
Adding considerably to the pace and underlying emotional texture of The Green Years is the film score of Carlos Pardes, who is considered a virtuoso of the Portuguese guitar (a 12-string instrument which can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance). The acoustic music is both lovely and forlorn and is clearly inspired by the Portuguese tradition of fado, melancholy songs which were first heard in the bars and brothels of Lisbon. There is also a moving theme song sung by Tereza Paula.
With any luck, the Film at Lincoln Center presentation of The Green Years might lead to a revival of interest in Paulo Rocha’s film career and possibly result in a future retrospective of his work and the Blu-Ray release of the restored version of The Green Years.
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