At last month’s 76th Venice Film Festival New Europe’s Federico Grandesso sat down for an exclusive interview in the famed lagoon city with Portuguese director Tiago Guedes about his new film A Herdade (The Estate) which was presented in competition at the festival.
Starring Albano Jerónimo, Sandra Faleiro, and Miguel Borges the film tells the story of family “ruled” by the charismatic João, a pseudo-anarchist and progressive rich landowner who owns one the largest estates in Europe on the south bank of the Tagus River.
Set in the second half of the 20th century, the story begins with a brief post-World War II prologue and moves to tell the story of the Fernandes family following the death of Portugal’s Fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, during the rule of the far-right Estado Novo government and the disastrous colonial war in Angola. It then moves on to the period leading-up to and immediately after the 1974 Carnation Revolution that ushered in Portugal’s modern era as a democratic republic and carries on to the early 1990s.
New Europe (NE): How did you address the family issue in this film?
Tiago Guedes (TG): For me, this film is talking about a very important part of Portuguese history, but my main interest in this film was the family. When we receive our heritage and we pass it on to others, the family plays such a key role. I was interested about the way people interact and influence each other without noticing…that happens in a lot of families.
NE: In this family there is a sort of dominant “macho” character and everybody is under his rule. Is that the right interpretation?
TG: It was very historical in a way. This kind of behaviour was very common in the past and women, in particular, were much more submissive at that time. I also wanted to portray how wrong that was and how there has been a slow end to the powerlessness of women in Portuguese society. In Portugal now, the gender situation is far more balanced. There are still some issues, but we are absolutely getting there.
NE: How did you show the historical facts in the film?
TG: I wanted to show the important political moments, like the revolution, and the other situations that influenced a change in this family. It is important to stress that these kind of men were like petty monarchs in their little kingdom. The revolution was very positive for Portugal, but it was also bad for a group of people and it was nice to show the other side of the coin. The revolution happened mainly in Lisbon and Porto. For me it was interesting how people far from the big cities felt about the revolution. For them it was something happening far out in the distance, but it changed everything around them.
NE: Why did you construct a character that is not assimilated or attached to the government?
TG: This makes him special. He is his own master and he does things in his own way. Everything that he does is to save and protect his little “kingdom”. He would do whatever not to surrender when the government is asking him to do something he doesn’t believe in. He doesn’t believe he is going to help the war effort in Angola because it’s already lost and he knows that.
NE: How did you come up wth the characters in relation to the political power around them?
TG: This was a big challenge because I could have created some funny clichéd-type of characters and the way I chose the characters could have ended up in that direction. The thing was that I didn’t want to make them laughable and weak because they (the government) really had power. They were influencing you in a way that you couldn’t refuse.
NE: You also wanted to address the topic of torture, how did you approach this subject?
TG: We didn’t talk too much in the film about torture, but there is a little scene. During that time this was part of the game and it is a historical reality that the secret police was really brutal. They learned from the CIA their torture techniques. I think that every family in Portugal had someone who went through it. We all know someone who was arrested, tortured, or silenced. That led to an entire country that wanted change.
NE: After the revolution there were some tensions when it came to working the lands. Why?
TG: After the revolution there was a lot of starvation and a lot of people didn’t have any jobs, so the new government tried to make a reform that would give people the right to work on land that wasn’t theirs. They were trying to free up all the lands for everybody and in some cases they were imposing themselves. The problem was that people were already there and they also didn’t want to lose their livelihood. It was a very difficult period.
NE: Did you ever speak with someone from the old regime?
TG: I didn’t talk to them directly, but we tried to be very correct with them, I didn’t want to make them funny or weird. Most of the old generals are not alive anymore and it was not at all easy to find or approach people who were part of the regime. I didn’t talk to any of the leaders because I didn’t want to make a docudrama or a biopic. It wasn’t really the point of the film to talk about every detail of the revolution.
NE: How was the work on set?
TG: It was a very free process. I started with a script that was a work in progress, then we were writing when shooting. It was very organic and it was not a pre-formatted film that wants to achieve something that was already planned. Even in the editing, there were lots of reconstructions because we wanted to get a certain tone for the film.
NE: Were you influenced by other masters from the world of cinema?
TG: I was really inspired by Vincente Minelli’s melodramas and Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. I also admire people like Paul Thomas Anderson, David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Fellini. I was inspired by all the old Italian and American movies. I had all these influences, but I’m not sure they are all in the film.
NE: What was your ultimate goal with this movie? Which elements did you want to present to the audience?
TG: I wanted to show how life in a mysterious way takes control of you and how things escape your control. You don’t know how you get to certain points. You don’t know what you’re going to leave to your kids and you don’t know what you got from your parents.