God's Comedy was the second in a trilogy of Joao Cesar Monteiro films about a character called Joao and played by the director, a figure in the three movies sharing many of the same preoccupations but in each given a very different lifestyle. In the first film Recollections of the Yellow House he was an impoverished figure living in a tiny room in a hotel with a shared bathroom, in the third, God's Wedding, he becomes a wealthy baron. Here he is somewhere in between: in charge of an ice-cream parlour. Besuited rather than dishevelled, he also has an apartment big enough to indulge in sexual quirks that include having one woman lying on his dinner table and moving her arms as if she is swimming in the sea, and in another scene getting a young woman to bathe in milk so that her scent can contribute to a distinct flavour of ice-cream.
If most filmmakers accept that a dimension of film is suspending disbelief, Monteiro is a filmmaker who wants us much more to suspend ethical judgement, and there are three elements vital to this here The first is the fascination with young women, the second with the narrative non sequitur, and the third with the amount of time Monteiro gives over to a piece of narrative information as he refuses to allocate time according to narrative importance.
In relation to the latter, many directors acknowledge that a character walking down the street is of less import than a scene where someone gets into a brawl, but part of the ethical impertinence of Monteiro is that he would be unlikely to assume one event is higher on the narrative hierarchy than the other. God's Comedy is full of scenes where Monteiro gives more time to an event than is relevant to its apparent dramatic purpose, so that the suspension isn't so much of disbelief but in going with an alternative cinematic belief about the image. We have to accept that time belongs to the filmmaker's preoccupations rather than to the expectation of a given audience. Numerous directors will modestly admit they are no more than storytellers. Monteiro would surely insist that such deference to narrative form indicates weakness of vision. It is not necessarily a sign of moral superiority (as if storytelling were part of some categorical imperative that insists if one has something to say then it must be contained well within narrative parameters as behaviour must be contained within certain social conventions) but instead a sign of perceptual weakness. A scriptwriting manual like Robert McKee's Story is thunderously Old Testament in its moral judgements: "the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told." It is not surprising McKee draws on Aristotle's Ethicsbefore saying, "as our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of the story." Is it consequently ethically remiss to ignore this remaining ideological assumption, and refuse the necessary pace of the scene that the storytelling demands?
In one sequence Joao goes shopping, and we watch him pass through the busy Lisbon streets and hear a babble of voices and off-screen sound. It is an extended sequence without particular point or purpose, as he first goes to the fishmonger and then onto the butcher. It is a moment that is part ethnographic study and part metaphysical enquiry, but hardly at all a sequence that furthers the storytelling. As Monteiro cuts from a shot of a fish being gutted to an animal having its innards removed, this is a nice match-cut as philosophical musing: it is the sort of brief scene that might remind us of In a Year with Thirteen Moons, The Blood of the Beast and other films that have asked us about our relationship with animals. Shortly after the cut we see the dead creature lying on the table and Monteiro offers a blast of non-diegetic opera that concludes on a hard slam of the butcher's knife as he chops off its head. Shortly afterwards what would seem to be the drama of the scene takes place when a teenage boy comes into the shop and asks if he's got "any of these", grabbing his own balls. The butcher throws a piece of liver at him and chases him out the shop. The film cuts back to an impassive Joao and the scene ends. It is possible some will claim that the aggression the butcher shows anticipates events later in the film. The young woman whom Joao bathes in milk, Joaninho (Claudia Teixeira) is the teenage daughter of the butcher, and, after he finds out about Joao's culinary erotics, hospitalises him. But this is the vaguest of foreshadowing, hardly prefiguring enough to justify the events that surround it.
Instead the sequence captures well Monteiro's interest in creating not a moral system for storytelling, but an ethical system where the story gives way to the randomness of event, as if to say that stories are all very well for those sure in their moral assumptions, but pretty hopeless when it comes to making sense of a world in which one's values are piecemeal. Monteiro's work echoes fellow Lisboan Fernando Pessoa's comment in The Book of Disquiet. "I'd like to write an encomium of a new incoherence that could serve as the negative charter for the new anarchy of souls. I've always felt that a digest of my dreams might be useful to humanity, which is why I've never tried to compile one. The idea that something I did might be helpful galled me and made me feel sapped." There is the same sense in Monteiro that he is caught between making and not making a film, and that the idea of building a story would be exhausting, useless and fundamentally false. If McKee can claim through Kenneth Burke that "stories are equipment for living", Monteiro might quip that non-stories are the equipment for surviving. His oeuvre contains films of disquiet, focusing more on manias than goals, pleasure over purpose. His character here may possess a pedantry absent from his previous incarnation in Recollections of the Yellow House, but that doesn't mean his character is any the more competent. When he shows a new assistant how to scoop ice-cream onto the cone, the ice-cream misses its target as Joao admits he is out of practise.
Maybe purposeful actions need to be contained instead by the absurdity of the premise. Joao diligently tries to make a new flavour of ice-cream with the butcher's daughter, but the concentrated effort is countered by the waywardness of his ambition, and the moral dubiousness of its premise. Monteiro offers the sequence in extended takes, a ritual of slow-burn seduction filmed, as with much of Monteiro's work, somewhere between the sacred and profane. It is sacred perhaps because he wants to capture the scent of a woman; profane because she is still but a girl.
Monteiro is a great director of the non sequitur, and even when a sequence follows one from the other as we find here when the butcher hospitalizes Joao for his deeds with his daughter, we don't exactly know what the butcher knows, and Monteiro elides the confrontation, cutting from a clearly angry butcher to Joao in hospital wrapped up in bandages. It is as if the elliptical and the non sequitur are the two sides of the Monteiro coin: whatever stops the flow of conventional narrative information. We don't know who it is who happens to tell the butcher of his daughter's seduction that is as much a 'decantering' as a deflowering, but Joao ends up in hospital for it anyway. There is a mocking approach to storytelling here, as if Monteiro is happiest when refusing the tale rather than pursuing it. Many a film thinks nothing of telling a story and consequently seems to think nothing because of it: the images don't have thoughts behind them as the flow of the story takes precedence over the making of the image.
Yet if we think of the great semiotician Christian Metz and the terms he utilised from Structuralism, the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic, one can see how a director makes images rather than accepts their inevitable flow. Metz uses the terms to describe how in cinema there are things that go with each other in the paradigmatic and follow from each other in the syntagmatic. Very loosely this is the difference between choices of mise-en-scene and choices of editing. We may notice that in most films what goes with what and what follows from one thing to another is rarely troublesome. The scene of a fight will usually be consistent with an earlier scene syntagmatically motivated by preceding actions, and paradigmatically will make the choices in the mise-en-scene that adds to this coherence. A very fine example of this is from Raging Bull, where Jake La Motta's jealousy over his wife's supposed comment about a handsome boxer he will be fighting, as he speaks to her in hushed tones by the bed, is followed by the severe beating of Janiro. Scorsese and his editor's cutting here is brilliant, but it isn't at all narratively troublesome. The syntagmatic and the paradigmatic are superbly stitched together to create clear and horrible motivation. Equally, the choices of mise-en-scene in the ring emphasize La Motta's brutal capacity to demolish another man's face. As Scorsese utilises numerous close ups, and at the end of the fight, a pan along the faces of those who've just watched the match, including La Motta's wife, so in this instance there are no surprises in the form.
Monteiro's non sequiturs call into question the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic: he makes us wonder why one cut goes with another, why the camera will be held for a certain length of time and at a certain distance. Now when someone offers a non sequitur conversationally, one tries to make sense of what is not immediately logical, and to do so we have to think not of the inevitable but of the possible. If someone replies after we've said to them that it's a wonderful day (in Edinburgh) and they reply that it is raining in Lisbon, we might try and make the connection that isn't immediately apparent in the statement. Is their partner or are their children in Lisbon, are they simply surprised the weather is much better in Scotland than on the continent and so on? One's thoughts lead to the possible and not the inevitable. Equally, Monteiro's non sequiturs ask us to wonder why one thing goes with another, why something follows from something else. We may notice, for example, in the scene before Joao goes shopping in the aforementioned sequence, he is on the phone in the ice cream shop, with the scene shot from the other side of the glass in the front of the parlour rather than behind the glass where Joao happens to be talking. Throughout, a set of scales remains in full view thought it serves no purpose beyond Joao occasionally leaning his arm on it as the scales go up and down. Thinking of the conventional use of the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic, we would assume that when Joao talks we would get a clear view of his head throughout, but as we see an image that is viewed from the other side of the glass it creates the possible over the inevitable: we ask questions around the choices made.
Is this simply contrariness on Monteiro's part? When a filmmaker chooses not to place the camera in the position most pertinent for giving us narrative information, are they defying expectation but doing nothing more? Now one reason why terms like the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic are useful is because they allow us to find a vocabulary for making sense of images, images that are refusing the norm without arriving at the contrary or the arbitrary. Often one finds in these disputes, between the conventional critics who want narrative and who see the arbitrary, and the alternative critics who are looking to escape narrative and admire the contrary, is that the very thought cinema like Monteiro's searches out is not being pursued. Many great filmmakers are surely not contrary, but instead looking to extend and expand the boundaries of the paradigm and the syntagm. There is contrariness in these images of Joao being blocked by the scales, but there is also a filmic attempt at creating humour out of this contrariness, of giving us a sense of listlessness not only in the character, but also in the image creation. It is not only that Joao is bloody-minded and 'hopeless', but also the images are hopeless too. This isn't to excuse lazily Monteiro for his own 'laziness'; it is instead to say that where in a mainstream film any laziness within the character remains exclusive to the character, in a Monteiro film this is extended into the very form of the work, giving it a deeper and broader sense of comic lassitude. It expands the possibilities of film comedy through the very formal properties it utilises to indicate the lazy.
One sees this even in the key sequence in the film, where it looks like the French are going to import ice-cream from the parlour in Portugal. As the sequence is elaborately set-up in terms of the time given over to it, so equally the film creates almost no tension or suspense in the narrative. If one thinks of a film like Big Night or Ratatouille where the owners of the restaurant have to produce food of fine quality and must wait with baited breath for the response of the diners or critics, so Monteiro gives over time to the event, but does not give adrenalized meaning to the situation. Is this contrariness on Monteiro's part: a bloody-minded refusal to work suspense into a sequence that demands it, or is the behavioural taking precedence over the suspenseful, and subsequently the comic proving more important than the tension generally created? One thinks it is the latter; because it gives Monteiro the chance to show the absurdity of the emptily active. It brings to mind Dostoyevsky's comment in Notes from Underground where the narrator talks of people who always need to attend to an activity instead of thinking: "all spontaneous people, men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited." What Monteiro does very well in his work is refuse the action and create space for the thought around the action. One of the problems with the action is that it often creates the unambiguous. As Dostoyevsky adds, "after all, in order to act, one must be absolutely sure of oneself, no doubts must remain anywhere." Action winnows behaviour down to the categorical, where by ignoring or not taking the action seriously, Monteiro expands the behavioural possibilities. This is in some ways a narrative variation of the stylistic choices being made with the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic. If in terms of style Monteiro will often block a face, or show an action partially rather than completely, then in terms of story he will retreat from the drive of the narrative to allow the space for us to wonder what follows what and what will go with what.
There is in much of Monteiro's work, of course, the figure of the flaneur, the city wanderer: the person who seeks a life of meaningfulness but does not assume that it can be found in purposefulness. Though Joao is more gainfully employed than many a Monteiro figure, it is the edge of his existence that interests the director, as if the dead centre of employment is no more than a series of hassles and inconveniences. When one of the staff comment on the mess someone has made in the bathroom, the mess remains off-screen, an event the film needn't attend to despite the horror of what has happened. It seems someone has wiped excrement on the walls. Joao is presented as a man obsessed with hygiene, but the film doesn't create a character actively obsessed but passively so: it seems more an affront to his cleanliness than an event to which he needs to do anything about himself.
Monteiro's is clearly a weak-link cinema, utilising film form for the needs not of narrative momentum but a combination of lateral thought and absurdist humour. This is contrarian cinema, but it finds a twofold alibi in searching out the inner workings of the contrary. Often the non sequitur is in danger of possessing the humour of the failed assumption. When we laugh because a character we expect to punch someone hugs them, or a film cuts from the middle of a car chase to someone picking their nose, we laugh with surprise, but of course if we find out that the hug holds in abeyance the punch, the character picking their nose will moments later become central to the car chase, then the film achieves the sequitur within the non sequitur. Yet in each example what we have is the apparent weak link narratively offered and then narratively justified. This isn't thus a cinema of weak-links: it merely plays with the viewer's expectations momentarily all the better to engage them in a stronger narrative connection. If Monteiro's films are frequently referred to as comedies (invoked of course here in the very title), it lies in the non sequitur, in the surprise we consistently feel between expectation and its thwarting. The boy coming into the butcher's shop and holding his balls is funny in its randomness, and Monteiro adds to this absurdity by having no through-line on the action at a storytelling level. When the film cuts to the butcher going after the boy to another event altogether, the amusement lies partly in that it won't be followed through. Reviewers on a site like Imdb will consequently claim the film is terrible, saying, "as far as I saw, the plot is inexistent". "Virtually unwatchable, complete waste of time". "One "hangs in there" waiting for the film to improve, but it never does." "The first half hour (fair is fair) is the most bewildering piece of fiction I ever saw, combining the utter idiocy of, say, the Police Academy series with the astounding 'la-di-dah, oh, what great art I'm making'-attitude of films as "Ulysses's Gaze"." But these criticisms are offered perhaps because the viewers focus on the non sequitur, and fail to see that it gets justified not on a narrative level but instead on a thematic one. However, where the notion of narrative justification fits neatly into the parameters of positivist thinking, with the film finding 'evidential' justification in consequential event, the thematic is harder to tease out and can easily seem like charlatanism. Hence comments like "the great art I'm making attitude of films as "Ulysses' Gaze"".
However, if we're to think of the film's title, what might God's comedy be? Is this instead of the best of all possible worlds that allows for the certitude of connection, a world in which connections can't be made since the film doesn't possess a character for whom sense is given and thus where sense could be assumed? The figure of the flaneur though is someone for whom the thematic potential of their life is more important than its concrete direction. In an article on Walter Benjamin initially published in the New Yorker, Hannah Arendt notices that "it is to him, aimlessly strolling through the crowds in the big cities in studied contrast to their (Marxists) hurried, purposeful activity, that things reveal themselves in their secret meaning." Monteiro's films also seem to be seeking a secret meaning, antithetical to the sort of dialectical Marxism Arendt mentions, and the positivist demands of narrative categoricals we have talked about. Consequently it makes sense that people will love or loathe Monteiro films, as they seek out the secret that for some will be revealed, and for others remain enclosed.
Indeed God's Comedy contains a scene that might well sum up this problem of the political versus the personal. Joao gets a taxi out to the poorer suburbs and wanders around the streets looking for Rosarhino (the film's desirous object in the first half, and the woman whom Joao has swimming on his living room table), and after hearing that she has moved keeps walking through the district. He comes across some kids who pull a gun on him and insist they are protesting against the police's activities, and try and sell him a photo showing evidence of the cops' oppressive presence. Joao insists he doesn't know any news journalists and the kids show him pictures of Rosarinho (Raquel Ascencao) they've taken after witnessing her nude through the crack in a wall. Joao shows more interest in the nudes and says he'll give them money if he can burn Rosarinho's pictures - which he does in their presence. There is the Bunuelian absurdity here of misplaced priorities and political impotence that might bring to mind That Obscure Object of Desire. Here is Joao the comfortable bourgeois wanting little to do with political action, but rather more fascinated by the pictures of Rosarinho. The kids are like the political organisation in That Obscure Object of Desire, determined but essentially impotent, and the position becomes all the more absurd through the children being no more than ten. As Joao tells them they shouldn't be out at night and disapproves of their smoking, so one senses the political gets absorbed not only into the personal but even into the frivolous. We're left wondering where Monteiro sits on such an issue, as he determines to avoid any sense of addressing it as an issue. Yet this is perhaps because he rejects the aesthetic notion of the issue rather than that he does not have a political position, and this is one of the pressing problems for filmmakers who don't at all feel apolitical but nevertheless cannot at the same time accept the easy politicisation of their aesthetic. It is as if the comedy of the Gods dwarfs the political agency of the human, but this doesn't mean the political becomes irrelevant; more that the assumption about its progressive dimension is questioned. As Joao wanders around the streets we're unlikely to be unaware that he is showing us class division, and he doesn't need to kick-start scenes of social deprivation and rousing music to make the point. Like Bunuel he understands that a certain realism of perspective (focused on one's own small, emotional concerns rather than the broader political reality) can lead to the surrealistic in film.
Yet it would be wrong to assume God's Comedy is a satirical account of bourgeois self-absorption, for there is a flipside here that says maybe one should be more interested in the personal than the social if the personal creates the space for the mythological, whilst the political only allows room for the immediately social, and it is here we can address his fascination with young women. When in the company of Rosarinho, Joao invokes Circe and Ariadne, as if escaping into the pleasures of the flesh is secondary to the plunge into mythological possibility. Monteiro's work may come close to chauvinism, but it contains within it awe in the face of the feminine form because of the mythological aura it seeks to contain. This isn't at all misogyny but closer to gynophilia, however problematic - to a love of women which helps man transcend his immediate milieu. It would surely be closer to say that Monteiro's work here is troublesome not because of his hatred of women but because of his love of them. In the scene where a series of women exit the swimming pool, Monteiro chastely kisses each on the cheek in a moment that is paradoxically kinkily respectful. It resembles a Serge Gainsbourg song, along with the mythological implications of Venus rising from the sea. When Joao and Rosarinho are in a cafe together, Monteiro holds on a particular shot of her as Joao's hand enters into the frame. It is a moment of tactile tenderness after the camera has not so much lingered as gazed: a look of quiet awe rather than lascivious expectation.
Yet near the end of the film, on returning to the ice-cream parlour after his time in hospital, he orders some ice-cream and asks if the owner is still around. When they meet she harangues him for his sexual perversions, and she is half-right and half-wrong. Joao is a pest, but he is isn't quite lecherous, and it makes sense that he would be searching for the scent of a woman, as if accepting that it is the subtle aroma that he seeks and not the sexual hard core. It is as if he wants to immortalise more than ravish, and so while one's response to Joao might be disdainful, it is important to see that this disdain reflects not Monteiro's misogyny, more his complex and complexed gynophilia.
It is said often enough that certain films make us think, but the pressing question is how they do so, and what sort of thoughts come out of this prompting. Monteiro is a fine filmmaker of yearning: his stick-insect body, old before its time, and looking like a cross between Buster Keaton and Nosferatu, is a pale shadow next to the youthful beauties he often accompanies in his films. Few filmmakers are better than Monteiro at making one feel the weight of time passing and time stilled - a time that passes through the body and sometimes creates a figure frail and complicatedly desirous like Joao, and at others figures like Rosalinho and Joaninha, caught in their cuspish cuteness. It is in such moments that documentary meets the mythological, as film, this cruel medium of time, shows both life and death, beauty and ugliness, at work. Equally it is where the political and the social are also absorbed into the dense matter of God's comedy. It makes sense that the film begins with an image of the milky way: with its refusal of causal connections and conventional behaviour it does indeed feel like a cosmic comedy.
© Tony McKibbin