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Jose and Pilar
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by Jay Seaver

"Beside every great writer..."
4 stars

The time period covered by "José & Pilar" aligns, roughly, with the time it took Nobel Prize-winning writer José Saramago to bring his book "The Elephant's Journey" from concept to release, and that sounds like a fairly dull sort of thing to watch. And it likely would be, if it were entirely comprised of Saramago sitting in front of his laptop, typing. But he and his wife Pilar del Rio aren't the type to let the grass grow under their feet, and director Miguel Gonçalves Mendes never seems to be more than a step or two behind them.

Many coming into the movie will know something about José Saramago: Though he did not write professionally until the age of sixty, he became renowned around the world. His native Portugal, however, reacted poorly to his book The Gospel of Jesus Christ and he had at the time of filming spent recent years on Lanzarote Island (one of the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory). When he's there, he works on his book and also helps to build a library, but an author of Saramago's renown is in demand for appearances all around the world, and he's still healthy enough to do do that sort of travel, despite being 83 years old, as the film starts.

Aside from a little text at the beginning to establish Lanzarote as his home, the film doesn't feed the audience the details on José Saramago's life story until reasonably late in the game, and in that way is able to focus on who he is in the present (well, the film's present; Saramago passed away after it finished shooting in 2008), and he's an interesting set of contradictions: Though his books frequently address spiritual or Biblical topics, he tells of being a life-long atheist; and while his words are often those of a cynical curmudgeon, he finds plenty of joy in small things and pleasantly talks to any visitors to the island who meet him in the library and cannot justify denying fans a moment of his time or an autograph. His face may be set in a permanent frown, but he's got quiet, surprising charisma.

The title suggests he perhaps wouldn't be that way without Pilar, the love of his life who does much of the work of keeping that life in order and also translates his books into Spanish. The great affection that the pair has for each other is evident from the first time they are shown together on-screen, and it's immediately clear that del Rio is a sharp, no-nonsense woman in her own right. That both of these are true is, in some ways, a hidden theme of the movie: Though Pilar does have a career of her own as a journalst - she seems fairly well-liked as a radio correspondent, it is by choice and necessity bent to accommodate her famous husband. Note how the footage from José's birthday has his whole town come out to celebrate and honor him, while Pilar's is spent tending to José's affairs.

Mendes doesn't quite make a point of that, but he certainly does put those facts right up front where people can make easy connections. He's got a knack for presenting things about the pair that don't quite amount to tensions but which may certainly be seen as opposing forces, and there's something wonderfully mysterious about how the places where they seemingly conflict tends to yield a positive result. Although he certainly highlights certain elements, Mendes never exactly dissects this pairing, instead just letting the audience watch it work as their busy life brings them from place to place (the hectic nature of their travel schedule certainly being something he does a fine job of making the audience feel as opposed to simply seeing it factually).

José & Pilar are interesting enough to carry the movie, and there are other tidbits thrown in that keep their film from seeming like just home movies: The stark scenery of Lanzarote, for instance, is both quite beautiful and a fitting backdrop for some of José's more pessimistic thoughts. I love a moment when Pilar is working on the translation of the new book and she pauses to consider how strong a Spanish phrase would correspond to what José wrote in Portugese where the trickiness of that job comes to the fore. There mostly make up for the other moments that are potentially interesting but which tend to focus solely on José, or how the friction between Saramago and his home country doesn't quite seem to be the major issue it is occasionally described as being.

Those issues mean more to those more familiar with Saramago than I, and it's not hard to forgive the movie for the other pieces. View an interesting person's life for a couple of years, and you'll get more than can fit into a focused movie. In some ways, it's actually fairly astonishing that Mendes and editor Claudia Rita Oliveira compress everything into a two-hour package that doesn't sag much at all; they're just as responsible for a movie about a writer taking two years to write a relatively short novel being consistently interesting as their subjects.

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originally posted: 09/28/13 09:39:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 15th Annual European Union Film Festival For more in the 15th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Miguel Gonçalves Mendes

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