Dear John


João César Monteiro, Come and Go, 2003, still from a color film in 35 mm, 179 minutes.

THOUGH FAR LESS of a household name, João César Monteiro was for Portuguese cinema what Luis Buñuel was for Spanish, a gleefully caustic satirist and libertine whose targets may have been the usual suspects of sexual, religious, and political propriety, but whose means of attack against them were highly unusual. Whereas, for example, his compatriots of the Cinema Novo swore by realism and the techniques of direct cinema, Monteiro’s vision was alternately baroque and crude, rigorous and anarchic, the work of a man fascinated by the purity of depravity.

Also unusual is that the most renowned period of Monteiro’s career was his last, a period in which he hadn’t so much settled into a style as begun to express the bottomless absurdity of his id. Starting with Recollections of the Yellow House (1989), the director himself starred in a series of related features as signature protagonist “John of God,” a drily pessimistic and puckish man on the wrong side of fifty with a penchant for beautiful young women and bizarre, Bataillean erotic fetishes (meticulously collecting pubic hair, soothing the posterior of an underage lover by having her sit on a horn-shaped basket of eggs, etc.). But while Recollections achieves a sustained poignancy for unsentimentally pitting “John” and his insatiable libido against the indignities and absurdities of aging (his frail, skeletal frame forming a striking contrast to his self-deprecating burlesques), in subsequent films like God’s Comedy (1995) and God’s Wedding (1998) such dark humor is literally run into the ground: By the time of the 2003 swan song Come and Go, in which “John” is recast as “John Vuvu,” Monteiro was confronting the specter of his imminent death—he passed away that same year—with gallows humor less lecherously surreal than self-parodically “naughty,” his overly deliberate line-readings and extreme long takes rendering “John” a dirty old man amid enervating caricatures of high-art tableaux.

Less celebrated earlier films prove more rewarding. Monteiro’s debut, Trails (1978), summons comparisons to Sergei Paradjanov as both an avant-garde picaresque of theatrically staged folktales and a quasi-ethnographic study in the storytelling tradition of rural mountain communities. Silvestre (1982) similarly discovers the modernist sensibility of timeworn legends, with a knight-disguised pubescent girl navigating a violent and unreal medieval world of seducers, dragons, and warriors (indeed, his depiction of female desire is more complex in these films than in the “John of God” era). Always interested in the artificial and Bressonian (Silvestre employs beautifully strange projected backgrounds and effective anti-naturalistic acting), Monteiro went as far out as a director can go when, in 2000, he revisited the heritage of myth in Snow White, a hard-core challenge composed almost entirely of black leader and a chorus of sober, disembodied voices enacting the fairy tale as reimagined by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Is it cinema, and is it worth the effort? Monteiro obviously didn’t want his films to make anyone comfortable, but the surprising thing about Snow White is that, given the director’s obsession with the corporeal, its abrasive asceticism evokes an intensely earned, intensely experienced pleasure.

Michael Rowin

“Perverse Poet: João César Monteiro” runs April 28–May 19 at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. For more details, click here.