The Northern Land (A Corte do Norte)

FF Filmes Fundo / Film Society of Lincoln Center

FF Filmes Fundo / Film Society of Lincoln Center

The Northern Land (A Corte do Norte) is a film that uniquely (but not refreshingly) embraces an old style of movie acting, one with deep roots in the stage, where characters face each other at 45-degree angles with respect to the camera’s line of vision, looking blankly straight forward at some invisible object rather than making eye contact with one another. This style is, to say the least, unnatural, but director João Botelho clearly has no intention of achieving any sort of cinematic realism.

Based on the novel by Agustina Bessa-Luís, The Northern Land can best be described as a sprawling family drama about one young woman, Sissi, who chronicles the history of women in her family tree in the past century and a half, all linked through having shared residence of her familial estate on the island of Madeira. Naturally, the film continually jumps back and forth between the historical narrative and Sissi’s excavation of it. However, my use of the term ‘historical narrative’ may be misleading, as the film only superficially sets these past events in a historical context, never revealing more detail on Portuguese life in this particular time and place beyond strict attention to period dress. Furthermore, the events of this family’s ancestry that Sissi finds so incredibly important to research and emotes copiously over are revealed to hardly extend beyond aristocratic social fluff, recounting love affairs, indulgences in high art, and scandals of social propriety, all of which ring equal in their tedium.

The major female figures in this family’s lineage (including Sissi) are all played by the same actress, 28-year old Ana Moreira, who is given the daunting task of playing across distinctly different historical eras, age groups, personalities, education levels, and class standings, several times even playing multiple women in the same scene. Moriera’s facial features bear a unique quality that appear especially photogenic, notably her doe eyes and her wide smile juxtaposed onto a very thin frame. Moriera is undeniably beautiful, and she no doubt possesses the acting skills to one day make us fall in love with her on screen, but she simply doesn’t display the range necessary to distinctively personify each of the characters she portrays—they all seem to mesh together as she approaches each of them with the exact same performance style.

Botelho’s institution of an annoyingly stagy acting style uniformly delivered by by the entire cast doesn’t help Moriera, and the whole film feels flat as a result. One could understand the implementation of a classical, melodramatic acting style for the historical sequences, but the actors conduct their present-day scenes with the exact same approach, rendering the film impenetrable and inauthentic.

The monotony of The Northern Land’s acting style is illustrated most fully in one sequence where Moriera plays a melodramatic stage actor. We are asked to make a distinction between her stage theatricality and the world of the film itself, but this becomes impossible as Moriera embodies the actress in the same way when she is both on and off the stage.

The Northern Land is Botelho’s first film shot digitally, and frankly, it shows. Botelho directs the framing, staging, lighting, makeup and (for the last time, I swear) acting as if he were still using film, and the result is a literal lack of depth within the frame that so adequately complements the film’s overall flatness and lack of authenticity on all other levels.

© 2008 Landon Palmer. All rights reserved.

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