(Portugal 2021; Dir: Leonor Noivo)


The Sense of Discomfort

review by Susanne Gottlieb


length: 28

year of production: 2021

country of production: Portugal

director: Leonor Noivo

production: João Matos, Leonor Noivo, Luísa Homem, Pedro Pinho, Tiago Hespanha, Susana Nobre

director of photography: Vasco Viana

editing: Mariana Gaivão, Raul Domingues, Leonor Noivo

sound: Olivier Blanc, Rafael Cardoso, Nuno Carvalho

music: Zélia Barbosa

cast: Isabel Costa, Alexandra Espiridião, Ana Teresa Magalhães, Lilia Trajano

festivals: Curtas Vila do Conde International Film Festival 2022, Vilnius Film Festival 2022, Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg 2022, Concorto Film Festival 2022

© images: 'Madrugada' (Dawn) (Leonor Noivo)

There is an eerie sense of emotional and visual disconnect running through Portuguese filmmaker Leonor Noivo’s short film ‘Madrugada’. The woman at its centre, Maria, feels at odds with her surroundings. Middle-aged, she has dedicated her life to carving out a space for herself and her daughter – only to realise at age 50, that she is trapped in a void — in a city of ghosts, and with the feeling of belonging somewhere else. Her ensuing disappearance will make those left behind wonder if they will ever put the pieces together.

Noivo, who won Best Film in the National Competition at Curtas Vila do Conde International Film Festival and received European Film Awards candidacy at Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg for ‘Madrugada’, emphasises this struggle with purpose, this sense of being uprooted, with a fabled arrangement of scenes superposing or encircling each other, adhering to a common idea and toying with the ensuing symbolism. The film tells its story via the mother-daughter relationship. Maria and her daughter have never been close. “She needed her time, her space,” the daughter observes, as she watches Maria stare out of the window, into the distance. “Each person is a world,” she continues, and Maria’s world, her perspective, will be revisited at that exact moment in a later sequence.

While the daughter mourns Maria’s disappearance and the realisation that she never really knew this woman truly, she also tries to retrace her last steps via her memories of the places she visited. Switching thereafter to a free-spirited dance sequence with her work colleagues, shot with long shadows against a black backdrop, the viewer gets a glimpse into her world for the first time. The three women have all been dealt difficult cards in life.They share how to love, stay away from consumerism, and how they feel trapped when life pressures change. “I am only free when I do what I truly want,” Maria admits. But what that is, remains unclear, as she later admits: none of them is truly free.

The film further underlines this feeling of disconnect with wide shots of the soulless concrete blocks where Maria and her colleagues work as cleaning ladies. There is never a soul to be seen, the grey monoliths speak of anonymity, of a life devoid of connection. The otherwise bustling Portuguese metropole becomes an eerie grave of loneliness, forgotten desires and long-lost objectives. It’s in these moments that the film turns away from reality’s bleakness and dips into a more mythical, symbolic narrative, enriching the pseudo-fable Noivo is presenting. Maria has started to develop fish scales on her body. Feels like a fish. Dreams of fish. A process she comments on with: “I was letting it happen”. The otherness, the excitement and the call for another existence linger in the air, and the water, is where she’s being drawn to more intensely.

Noivo enriches said scenes with curious camera angles, often juxtaposed with a dark, scarcely lit background, gliding over the scales and the roots developing at Maria’s ankles. The body, a human’s superficial calling card, the visual appearance on which we are judged, is turning inside out, projecting inner longings with its inaptness to conform to societal and natural norms. “As a fish out of the water,” seems like a common proverb, but it applies perfectly to this story, in which Maria carefully caresses the scales on her neck. She is not okay, here. She might not be dying like a real fish of lack of oxygen, but her situation, her life, is suffocating her with its tight grip on her well-being.

As the story returns in a round dance to that opening scene, in which the daughter watches her mother stare off from behind, it adds another aspect, another detail into the mix. Maria is watering her plants and acknowledging: “I lost track of how much water”. The moments she spends with her plants (some sort of jungle refugee she has built for herself at home) are few of the film’s calm sequences. This small island of flora is where Maria can unwind, the scales on her body gleaming visibly on her back. “The plant is not okay here,” she exhales while watering — not a throwaway line of an unskilled plant mom. It is a projection, an exclamation of her proper state of mind.

It’s not until Maria envisions herself in a body bag, that she sets out to find a new purpose. Her disappearance is a necessity, an occurrence traumatising for some, yet insignificant to others. As her daughter goes looking for her at a nearby stream, and children play to the recurring tune of the song “Funeral de um Lavrador”, there is a fragmented sense of ease and hope. “Perhaps now I know her better though I no longer have access to her,” the daughter had already observed at an earlier point. As she watches the children, there is life and aspiration where there may have been none before. “It's the part you got from this homestead, It's the land you wanted to see shared, You'll be happier than you were in the world,” the song keeps on repeating. A promise, maybe, that Maria has found the world she belongs in.