Transmissions: Rita Azevedo Gomes’s Correspondences
Rita Azevedo Gomes’ cinema rests on a higher plane. Her films exude an air of romanticism. In precise mise-en-scène, the mark of a formalist, characters in Fragile as the World (2002) and A Woman’s Revenge (2012) perform the rituals of love. Her latest film, Correspondences (2016), which premiered at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, merges romanticism with the reality of historical facts.
As the title suggests, Correspondences is about communication. It is a reverie, based on the letters exchanged between Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, two major Portuguese poets of the 20th century. From 1959 to 1978, the letters chronicle the love found in friendship. Hearing them read by a variety of actors, speaking a variety of languages, these letters are intimate, compassionate, laced with poetry, and full of interest and curiosity for the other correspondent. They give a glimpse into the lives de Sena and Sophia (as she’s commonly referred to in Portugal) led. A glimpse, not a stare. In such a multi-layered film, one that does not hold your hand and guide you along with historical context, it is best to know something about the two poets before watching Correspondences.
In 1959, the year that the letters begin, Sophia is ensconced in Portugal’s literary world, while de Sena left the country with his family. De Sena spoke out against António de Oliveira Salazar’s long-reigning dictatorship, airing his critiques, albeit discreetly. De Sena found refuge in Brazil, where he advanced his academic career, lecturing on English and Portuguese literature, as well as literary theory. He taught in the Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences, and Languages of Assis, São Paulo State (UNESP) until 1961. He then moved to UNESP’s Araraquara campus, where Sartre once taught. De Sena moved once more in 1965, after witnessing his exiled homeland turn into a military dictatorship. He settled in the United States, taking a tenured position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 1970, de Sena began teaching at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Eight years later, the final year of his correspondence with Sophia, he would die of lung cancer at the age of 59.
In its depiction of isolation, exile, and absence, Correspondence shares thematic concerns with Chantal Akerman’s News From Home (1977), another epistolary film. A major work in her oeuvre, News From Home saw Akerman explicitly integrating autobiographical material into her films for the first time. News From Home consists of static shots of New York City, full of melancholy, and accompanied by Akerman’s voiceover. She reads the inquisitive and lonely letters her mother, Natalia, sends her.
Where News From Home has a singular formal strategy, a dispositif, Correspondence is heterogeneous. It is a film that exalts language in general and poetry in particular, especially as English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish actors recite it. With Gomes’ adherence to the text, to the sound of spoken poetry, Straub-Huillet’s influence is palpable. In a mixture of setups that either stand alone or are part of a fictional scenario, a number of Gomes’ friends and collaborators read de Sena and Sophia’s words including: Rita Durão, Pierre Léon, Boris Nelepo, Eva Truffaut, Edgardo Cozarinsky, even Sophia and de Sena themselves. In tableaux shots, they read in an assortment of spaces, in kitchens, living rooms, backyards, and in fields and off coasts. The film feels as if it’s both in the past and the present. Using several directors of photography, Gomes constructs Correspondences out of archival, crisp digital, and digital made to look like archival footage. And as with the theatre setup of A Woman’s Revenge, Gomes reveals Correspondences undertaking, leaving in outtakes in which you can see boom mikes and hear directions.
Correspondences is not a collage, but a patchwork of shots, one following another seemingly without rhyme or reason. The only thread of continuity are the letters read out loud. It is easy to label the film as unfocused, but there is a strategy behind the mixture. Its lack of structure creates the sense of displacement and disorientation, causing you to drift in and out of the film. Absence is always felt when the performers read the words of these now dearly departed poets.
Correspondences takes the William Carlos Williams line, “No ideas but in things” to heart. A cellist, a salted fish, books, mirrors, windows, statues, but above all else, the sea in all its many shades of blue are the details that make up Gomes’ film. The sea is a constant in the film; Gomes frequently returns to it. It’s a point of synthesis, for Sophia drew upon imagery of the ocean in her poetry, and de Sena had a lifelong fascination and intellectual curiosity for a period that took inspiration from the sea, ancient Greece (a brief clip at the end of the film shows de Sena reading his “In Crete with the Minotaur” with relish). Correspondences has the flow of the ocean, perpetually moving from one letter, one line of poetry to the next.
Correspondences is Gomes’ long and loving film about a friendship that spans, years, decades, continents. De Sena and Sophia’s words, revived once more, are transmitted and translated again and again as each actor recites them in their own language, voice, and tone. Lifted from the page and uttered from the mouth, their poetry sings.