A Taste for Discovery

Georges Sadoul, Lettres Françaises
February, 1963


Battered by the cold and the rain, it takes courage to go at night to Av. Saint Ouen, in the vicinity of the “Marché aux Puces”, to attend the sessions of a typical neighborhood movie theater: The “Paris Cine”, with its thousand seats. (…)

This Film club owes its enduring success to its taste for discovery. The managers are always on the lookout for every interesting novelty coming from the East or from the West, from Western Europe or from the Third World. With its forty annual sessions, their activity in presenting original films is exceeded only by the “Cinema Museum”, where Langlois has been training so many young directors; but here they have known how to discover, throughout the five continents, a number of important and ignored films, all bearing the avant-guarde mark.

And so, once again, on one of last December’s Tuesdays, I went to the “Paris Cine” in order to have the chance of seeing a Belgian documentary about the great events of 1961, the importance of which has been noted elsewhere by Marcel Martin. In the second part of the session, the “Cine Club Action” presented a Portuguese film, “Dom Roberto”, on which I had no reference whatsoever. Worried about a long journey that I had in store for the next day, I was determined to get away after the first sequences…

The film had obviously been made with a very small budget. Its rhythm was slow. I was looking for my 2CV keys and getting ready to leave when, all of a sudden, I was taken under some kind of enchantment and watched “Dom Roberto” till the end, without another thought to my lack of sleep. Fatigue came back upon me only after the last shot, but it hit me strongly enough to erase any impression of the movie for twenty-four hours. And then…for eight days I felt the need to talk about my discovery, tell the plot to my friends, in great detail, and often with great emotion. When a film haunts us in such a way, it’s because it is very important to us. In fact, the same amount of time afterwards, my memory did not retain but a few spectacular scenes from The Longest Day, for instance; but it did not forget the humble heroes of Dom Roberto and their heart-warming adventures.

Ernesto de Sousa, the director of Dom Roberto, studied cinema in France, founded active film clubs and an excellent magazine, Image. With the support of young cinephiles and friends, he was able to start a “Spectator’s Cooperative” that helped finance Dom Roberto. The film couldn’t have cost more than a thousand dollars…but one had to find them! This young director probably wasn’t as lucky as some of our “nouvelle vague”, to find a Patron within his own family to finance his first film (albeit modestly): money from his wife, parents or father-in-law…But it was not enough for Ernesto de Sousa to collect the modest amount, penny by penny. Other obstacles were in the way…like having the film approved.  The struggle of the first Italian neorealist filmmakers is well known, guilty of showing Rome or Naples’s poverty. It’s easy to imagine that things couldn’t have been easy in the making of a story in which the heroes are a homeless and an unemployed girl. Nevertheless the film was made and, so, out of the desert this lovely fresh flower blossomed…

Portugal (as shown by the U.N.E.S.C.O statistics and the films presented at festivals) is a nearly deserted cinematographic area. Attendance is one of the lowest in Europe: two or three tickets sold per year and per inhabitant, at most. Production is often limited to three or four feature films that are never exported, not even to Brazil.

Here we have now, with Ernesto de Sousa, a “new Portuguese wave” and a new world-class director…

Some, with regard to Dom Roberto, may be surprised that there are still films being made in Lisbon according to the old formula of Bicycle Thieves. That is because they did not appreciate this film beyond certain appearances. This work owes very little to Italian neorealism, but a lot to Chaplin, to whom Ernesto de Sousa pays a direct tribute with the last shot, a true cinematographic quote of the ending of Modern Times, when Charlot follows the long road hand in hand with Paulette Godard.

But one shouldn’t in any way believe that the Portuguese director copied Chaplin. He did it as little as Jean Vigo when he asks Jean Dasté to “walk like Charlot” in his Zero de Conduite; Or François Truffaut when he quotes the same Vigo in his Quatre Cents Coups, so distant in mood from Zero de Conduite.  As for De Sousa, he resembles Chaplin only in essence, in his warmth of heart, in his attention turned to the humblest, in his taste oriented to day-to-day atmospheres. His film is nostalgic without ever being embittered or desperate. As for the inherent subtleties and the occasional depth, the director finds them in the most ordinary things and objects, in the most common feelings, never trying to use a “gag” in order to create an effect, or something sensational, but always in order to say something…


Frankly, I thoroughly enjoyed this modest film, a work that avoids eloquence but takes us in confidence, with its slow fascinating murmur, like a lamentation that evokes, beyond words, a whole people, an entire culture, without resorting to false popular bling, to the picturesque, to exoticism… De Sousa carefully avoids easy effects; he is an enemy of all excesses. His tone is that of perfect classicism, able to reverberate the people’s spirit.

Will Dom Roberto mark the beginning of a new Portuguese wave? I couldn’t say it. A work of quality is not enough for a national school to be born or reborn. But Ernesto de Sousa is not the only young Portuguese film director, as far as I know, that has the intelligence, the taste and the passion for the art of filming. May they be allowed to express themselves and tomorrow Portugal will take the place it deserves in the international arena, but which so far its films have not yet conquered…

With regard to Dom Roberto, I will not claim that it is one of the “fifty most beautiful films in the history of cinema” like an advertising agent or one of those “trigger happy” critics. No. It simply is a milestone in the history of cinema that such a thrilling, sincere, genuine film has come to us from a country that has been silent and absent for too long.