The Life of a Poet
In 1975 Al Berto (Ricardo Texeira) returned home to Portugal to Sines, his small village from Brussels where he went through training to be a painter. He began living in a mansion, the same place that the revolutionaries had taken from his family so he was breaking the law. He became friendly with some of the locals, one of who was Joao Maria (José Pimentão) who was taken by Al Berta’s charm. Al Berta began a counter-culture revolution that appealed to the young and threatened the conservative citizens of the town.
Al Berto became one of Portugal’s best-known poets but you do not need to know that to enjoy this film. Directed by Vicente Alves do Ó’s latest film, “Al Berto” is based on his life and the journals of the director’s older half-brother, who had once been the poet’s lover. The film does not tell Al Berto’s entire life story; it focuses instead on his youth and Portuguese youth culture that indulged in the cultural and sexual freedoms that were allowed in the period immediately after the Portuguese revolution of 1974, when the conservative authoritarian regime of Estado Novo was overthrown.
Upon returning home Al Berto decides to dedicate himself to writing and begins cultivating a bohemian community of likeminded individuals whose eccentricity, sexuality, and art does not sit well with many of the locals. In this sense, the openly gay and confident Al Berto comes to embody the emergence and the rise of a new youth culture that is unashamed of its ambitions and desires.
Al Berto is also as handsome, charismatic and sexually charged. He becomes the symbol of cultural rebellion. He is also kind-hearted and more than willing to let anyone become part of his own little world where there are no rules. Early in the film, as João Maria (José Pimentão) follows him to his mansion for the first time and remarks that “The door was open,” Al Berto replies that “The door is always open”. The two men become involved in a passionate and steamy romance and this takes away from the wider cultural context, particularly that of the clash between the bohemian commune and the town locals, which gradually becomes more important as the film progresses. Sara (Raquel Rocha Vieira) is a member of the commune, one of Al Berto’s best friends, and a woman with writing aspirations of her own. She dreams of a better life for herself, but faces a moral dilemma by clashing with her own mother and her own working-class background. Sara shows a real sense of connection with the outside world of class struggle, social consciousness, and moral anxiety.
The film is a delight in the style of its temporal setting through its costumes and art direction. We become well aware of the demarcations between decadent parties and cultural happenings that are constantly redefined. This is not a history lesson— the appeal of the film comes from its timelessness and universality. Basically, this is a portrait of youth and “a portrait of the artist as a young man.” Al Berto and we see him coming-of-age and facing the possibilities of failure and realizing that whatever doesn’t kill someone, makes him stronger.
When he came home, Al Berto was ready for his hometown of Sines, but Sines wasn’t ready for him. We see a clash of mentalities in an attempt to capture the spirit of a time in turmoil. The open relationship between the two men and their entourage, in stark contrast with the town’s narrow-minded attitude leads to several conflicts and will ultimately cause the group to fall apart. Al Berto is a confident young man who is fearless and joyful and the film seems to suggest that the Sines period was fundamental for the poet’s subsequent reinvention as a creature of the night once he left Sines (and João Maria) behind. The film is, in this aspect, a coming-of-age tale in Al Berto has sexual freedom. We only see Al Berto’s darker side during a few moments of rage and, occasionally, when he meets a local prostitute (Rute Miranda). João Maria is a more real and less mysterious character, probably because the script is based on his own diaries and texts, which the director inherited upon his brother’s death.
*sorry, there are no subtitles on the screener but there are on the film itself.