Eugène Green, The Portuguese Nun, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Julie de Hauranne, Vasco, and Carloto Cotta (Leonor Baldaque, Francisco Mozos, and D. Sebastião).


RARELY HAS A MOVIE opened with the serene, picturesque tranquility that flows through the first minutes of The Portuguese Nun’s (2009): a slow and sumptuous 180-degree scan of the Lisbon skyline, shot from the hills above, accompanied by only the sounds of wind and water. It’s a gorgeous but strangely detached beginning to director Eugène Green’s cinematic daydream—an ideal encapsulation of his peculiar filmmaking method—designed to jolt the viewer out of the role of passive observer through characters who move awkwardly about the city, who speak without affect or inflection, and who occasionally gaze directly at the camera when offering philosophical asides about the human condition. Combining these unlikely elements, Green creates movies that are ridiculous yet somehow revelatory. Where some will see slow-moving tedium, others will be alerted to the potency of the film’s words and themes, and the nearly palpable mise-en-scène; much like Kubrick, Green is less interested in characters than in the ideas and ideals they embody.

His thesis concerns the ways in which travelers can be spiritually awakened, even transformed, by fleeting chance encounters and undiscovered countries. (The same theme could apply to Green himself, who abandoned his regular French locales to mold this love poem to the ethereal hub of Portugal.) The protagonist Julie (Leonor Baldaque) is a French actress who travels to Lisbon for the first time as the star of a film shoot. She plays a nun. But as she imbibes the wonders, her interest in the movie wanes. Julie’s nightly conversations with her director (Green) quickly veer from acting critiques to philosophical digressions. As she strolls through town, befriending an array of locals—from a lonely, suicidal aristocrat (Diogo Dória) and an orphaned boy, to a dashing young flirter—she delves into a place of introspection, her “conversations” more closely resembling meditations on life and love. When she stumbles upon a real nun (Ana Moreira) at a nearby church who spends every evening lost in prayer, Julie’s quest to “find her part” becomes something much more profound.

Green’s style can be off-putting to mainstream audiences, as he rigidly divides the story into chapters, often diverting from the central plot, if only to gaze at the city below or to bask in a mournful fado performance at a nearby café. The concept of momentum doesn’t quite apply here. Baldaque, Green, and Dória deliver their lines so statically that emotional sincerity is all but abandoned, as the director instead concentrates our attention on the meaning of his script and the staging of the conversation. But by ignoring these surface pleasures, Green emphasizes instead the deeper questions of Julie’s midnight musings, and the freedom afforded by a new city and fresh perspective. She is a beacon of empathy, always curious and easily moved, and while there is considerable silence in The Portuguese Nun, it’s a deafening silence, filled with both hesitation and hope.

S. James Snyder

The Portuguese Nun runs October 22–28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.