“It makes no sense going to the theater to watch films if one lacks the desire to prolong that very experience by means of words, conversations, writing.” What better way to kick off Photogénie’s coverage of the International Film Festival Rotterdam than with these words from João Bénard da Costa in Manuel Mozos’s new film, playing in the Signals Regained section. João Bénard da Costa – Others Will Love the Things I Loved is a homage to the eponymous Portuguese cinephile. Bénard, who passed away in 2009, was a major advocate of film culture in his country, but remains largely unknown outside the Portuguese-speaking community. He was the assistant director and subsequent director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa from 1980 until his death. He was a critic for the newspapers Público and O Independente and author of Os Filmes da Minha Vida (1990), books on the musical genre, Portuguese film history, next to monographic studies on Hitchcock, Buñuel, Lang, Ford, von Sternberg, Ray and Hawks. Bénard acted in films by Raúl Ruiz and mainly Manoel de Oliveira – that other Portuguese film legend of which an essayistic portrait, Les Gants Blancs, premieres in the same Signals Regained section.The under-recognized Portuguese director Manuel Mozos works at the Cinemateca Portuguesa and was a friend of Bénard. With the exception of unique events such as the 2012 Viennale retrospective, Mozos’s films, documentaries and essays are rarely shown. It’s telling that I know him, not through his films, but as one of the seven strange men in Miguel Gomes’s feature debut The Face You Deserve (2004). At the time, I didn’t know that Bénard actually played the small part of the doctor in that same film. The backbone of João Bénard da Costa is a voice-over constructed out of his writings and read by his son. The text forms a philosophical reflection on art, time, memory, Christianity, life and death. The images that accompany the spoken word are portrait photographs, paintings, his landscape of Sintra and Arrábida, film stills and fragments of Bénard’s favorite films, which are watched by Mozos on the viewing table of the cinematheque. Echoing the spectral presence of Bénard’s reflections on his life, almost all of the clips deal with ghosts.On the remarkable number of ghosts that haunt this year’s programme at IFFR, see https://filmkrant.nl/artikel/iffr-het-spookt-in-rotterdam/ (Dutch-only) His earliest encounter with images – “my first ghosts” – were the family portraits that filled the living room wall. The discovery of painting at a young age appeared to him as a magnification of his own gallery of ancestors. In their turn, all those images joined the kingdom of light and shadow on the cinema screen. Borrowing Cocteau’s expression, he wrote this taught him that in the still image and even more in the moving image we see “la mort au travail”. This is also what appears to be at work in Mozos’s elegy and in the film fragments. The first fragment is the intro of The Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948). In the film Joseph Cotten encounters a ghostly girl who, every time they meet, seems to have grown much older than is possible.The film that returns most is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947), “the saddest and most beautiful of films”. In a powerful juxtaposition of sound and image, Mozos combines the “I won’t leave this house!” dialogue between Mrs. Lucy Muir and the Captain’s ghost with interior shots of the Cinemateca Portuguesa, that film house where his spirit will always remain present after his decades of work. The empty corridors and rooms also echo the threat of closure that the institution faced at the end of 2013, while the financing of Portuguese film production remains unstable since 2012. It was before the screening of João Bénard da Costa at DocLisboa last October that the co-director of the festival announced a collective resignation of cinema representatives from the commission that had to vote on the public funding of films in 2015.The film of Bénard’s lifetime, however, is Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar – “The Imitation of Christof cinephiles. You can open it anywhere and you’ll find the right sentence.”You can read João Bénard da Costa’s delirious review of Johnny Guitar in English translation here. Johnny Guitar seems to fascinate more Portuguese filmmakers – maybe because it’s said to be the most screened film in the Portuguese cinematheque under Bénard’s direction? See João César Monteiro’s wonderful short Passeio com Johnny Guitar (1995, 3’) here. Read Andy Rector’s loving obituary of João Bénard da Costa here. Mozos visualizes the end of Bénard’s review of the film where he draws a parallel between Vienna who demands to keep the roulette’s wheel spinning because she likes the sound of it, and the film strip running through the projector. When Vienna’s bar – “at once a mausoleum and a house of spells” – is eventually set on fire, the sound of the building burning keeps playing, while Mozos cuts to tormented details of Hieronymus Bosch’s Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony, which hangs in Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.
Just as in the fragments of the resurrection in Dreyer’s Ordet or Mrs. Muir who overcomes death in some sort of surreal love, Mozos and Bénard’s son keep his spirit alive. Maybe more than a ghost that won’t or cannot leave, Bénard was a medium on his own, as he almost describes himself somewhere in the film: “I delivered myself to several fathers or mothers and I let them influence me. And since my chosen masters or guides were contradictory, I embodied those contradictions in the image I reflected and projected.” Others will keep on loving the things that he has loved, as in the film’s subtitle hints to Sophia de Mello Breyner’s poem.Bénard sure lived up to one of his descriptions of cinephilia: “life organized around film.” Yet, he seemed to believe that cinephilia, or at least his understanding of it, “actually refers to a form of love and praxis tragically dated.” “Cinephilia belongs to history. It is today a historical object”, he continues. Bénard speaks of it in terms of the requirement of “verbal reflection” and “qualifying words”. Mozos’s very own cinephile film essay, that reconfigures Bénard’s words and writings in an audiovisual way, however, seems to prove the existence of other options. So do the eight critics who made a video essay to introduce their film selection in the Critics’ Choice programme that has been resurrected at IFFR this year.Although the film’s open form doesn’t clarify everything to those not familiar with João Bénard da Costa, it leaves enough mystery to make one curious to learn more about him and especially to be able to read his film critiques. Let this film portrait be an occasion to make more of his work find its way into English.