Algerian-Portuguese film Zeus screened within the Alexandria Mediterranean Film Festival, which closed Monday, 7 October.
The film marks the first co-production between the two countries, and tackles the story of a shared personality: Manuel Teixeira Gomes, the former Portuguese president who resigned and settled in the city of Béjaïa, Algeria.
Gomes was a writer of erotic novels before focusing on the political path that led to his presidency. As his enemies brought up his old novels as leverage against him, a clash of ideals ensued, with the former writer yearning for freedom. Leaving everything behind, he rebeled against the “life taken too seriously” to become a traveler, seeking an authentic life.
Zeus is a quietly paced film in today's age of speed. While it is arguably too slow and eventless, it does fittingly reflect its subject.
Set between the 1920s and 1940s, Portuguese director Paulo Filipe chose a classic approach. An academic known for his scriptwriting alongside teaching film at Lisbon University, Filipe’s cinematic visuals bring back the golden age of cinema.
The beautifully composed shots between Portuguese palaces and the Algerian desert linger long enough for the viewer to savour.
Filipe’s cinema is a language of colours, careful compositions, and use of light and shadow. The scenes in Portugal, during the protagonist's presidential term, are always night shots, while Gomes in Algeria is always in the clear light of day.
The palette changes greatly, from dark suits in meeting rooms to light ones by the coast. In the presidential palaces there is a frequent contrast between hot and cold colours.
In one scene in particular, the dramatic use of colour is almost theatrical. Gomes is defending his novels to his assistant, speaking of the need to celebrate sensuality and to “awaken the flesh.” Leaving the darkly lit office, they descend stairs to a common room with red walls. As Gomes speaks about passion and sensuality, he moves closer to the red wall until it envelopes him in a close shot. His assistant, politely reluctant, stays behind on the cool palette and never crosses over to the red wall.
The film’s non-linear narrative jumps in time forward and backward, and also between reality and fiction. The different timelines sometimes highlight contrasts. We see this early on as the scenes alternate between his time as president loosening his tie and breathing with difficulty, and scenes of him in the open desert taking deep smiling breaths.
As the film progresses, it more and more intertwines his chosen life in Bejaia with his novel Maria Adelaide and its characters.
There are times when both narratives converge. In a scene towards the end, Maria’s husband breaks the fourth wall to mouth the words “o upi é grátis” — You are free, in Portuguese. That scene is juxtaposed with Gomes’ old age, where perhaps he was finally able to let go of the desire that haunted him.
Zeus (Photo: still from the film)
True to life
Visually, the fiction of Maria Adelaide appears very similar to Gomes’ surroundings in Bejaia, another classical directorial choice.
“My memoirs will be written when I've forgotten them, so I can write them from my imagination; then they will be interesting,” Gomes tells a journalist sent to write his biography.
It is as if the director wanted to honor Gomes’ love for fiction by bringing in his novel, while also presenting his actual life for audiences to know him as he truely was, a balancing feat he achieved.
Algerian head of production Hakim Abdelfattah, who was present for a discussion after the screening, told Ahram Online how the film remained faithful to Gomes’ biography.
Filipe began scriptwriting in 2010, with the first draft emerging in 2014 after extensive research and gathering anecdotes from people who crossed his path.
The character of Gomes was shaped from the stories of his family and those who worked with him in Lisbon, as well as the family of Amokrane, a hotel porter in Bejaia whom Gomes befriended.
Alongside casting Portuguese actor Sinde Filipe, who shares a striking resemblance with the real ex-president, the film was shot in the actual locations where the events occurred, making it all the more true to life.
Supported by the Portuguese and Algerian culture ministries, Filipe was able to shoot in the Portuguese Presidential Palace, and the same hotel in which Gomes resided in Bejaia.
“The hotel was turned into a studio for the duration of filming, with costumes on one floor, the film crew on another. We even had to break some walls to be able to film in the small room where Gomes was staying,” Abdelfattah said.
Gomes’ life is also like the film in the aspect of being anticlimactic. Because the film starts with the turning point, what comes after is only exciting because it’s true, not because it’s gripping.
The police snoop after him, read the letters he sends, and spy on his conversations, for what seems to built up into another turning point. But all the spies find is a simple man enjoying his life.
Much like Gomes’ novels, Zeus layers several themes and subtexts.
There are very light political parallels between Algeria and Portugal. Yet the film's heart is the bravery in abandoning what Gomes felt was a sterile environment between four walls, in favour of peace of mind, presence and freedom of choice.
On another level there is the quest for authenticity, and the sacrifices that come with it. It could be viewed as selfish, leaving his children and responsibilities behind. Yet the film took no critical approach to this point and instead presents it as a smooth and impulsive decision with no consequences.
Erotic versus conservative is another subtext. His friend Amokrane is a muslim Mo’adden, who calls the prayers from the mosque. Theirs is a friendship of total acceptance, despite their different backgrounds.
Zeus, despite not living up to it’s legendary title, stands its ground and makes arguments for itself, as form serves subject.
The film was given an appreciation certificate for its “Portuguese director who reached out to Algeria to collaborate on the unique film.”
It already won eight awards in Portuguese festivals, including best director at Premios Aquila Festival, best actor for Sinde Filipe at the Autores Awards, in addition to awards for various other aspects including cinematography, and makeup and costume design, which all commendably stood out throughout the film.
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