DIRECTED BY: António de Macedo
FEATURING: Eugénia Bettencourt, João D’Ávila, Cecília Guimarães
PLOT: After purportedly being raped by her stepfather and expelled from home by her mother, blind 23-year old Maria is interned in the ruined remains of an old psychiatric ward by her aunt, Sister Ângela, who entrusts her to the care of Doctor Firmino.
COMMENTS: António de Macedo is one of Portugal’s most unjustly treated directors. One of the pioneers of the “Novo Cinema” movement (Portugal’s version of the “New Wave”) and the country’s only consistent representative of genre filmmaking, he abandoned the craft in the early 1990’s out of frustration with the open ostracism to which he was subject, including the government’s refusal to finance his movies. He nevertheless left behind an important, although little noticed, body of work including the relatively successful A Promessa (The Vows) (the first Portuguese film to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival) and lesser-known works that delved explicitly in fantastical territory. His retirement from cinema saw him focus on other interests: he was also a playwright, novelist, and an explorer of religion and esotericism.
Twelve Hours with Maria, which could be described as a Gothic psychodrama, proved controversial at the time of release, denounced as blasphemous by the Catholic Church and inciting the ire of conservative activists who sabotaged screenings with violence and protests.
Set entirely within the austere confines of the abandoned ward to which Maria is committed, the film’s tone is accordingly solitary and cold; when not focused on the main character, shots are of the bleak edifice’s broken windows and unruly surrounding vegetation. Maria’s only interactions are with her visiting aunt and the calm and professional Dr. Firmino.
The film opts for a structure based on mystery. The way Maria’s inner world, and the complete account of what brought her to her current situation, is gradually unveiled through dialogue and confessions, as well as the subtler hints given by her occasionally erratic behavior, generate the suspense. Besides the broken state in which she finds herself, Maria’s mystical sense of faith is her principal character trait and the apparent source of her strength. Believing that her blindness will eventually be cured by the grace of the Virgin, and demonstrating an unshakable trust in fate, Maria’s faith is consistently challenged (as well as paradoxically strengthened) by a world that continuously subjects her to suffering and isolation. Dr. Firmino’s rationalist and historicist tirades, including commentary on scripture that is brought to life in vivid reenactments, clashes with the aunt’s dogmatic beliefs.
Besides the caricatured nun, the main source of controversy at the time were scenes where the atheist doctor presents an alternative version of the Gospel story, outrageously extrapolating from apocryphal sources to include a twin brother of Jesus, a son taken as hostage by Roman authorities, and reducing Christ’s movement to a merely political affair, depicting him as a guerrilla leader. These sections, with the bright colors of the desert, Roman troops, and bloodshed, provide a much welcome visual and tonal counterpoint to the rest of the film’s stark presentation; they are almost reminiscent of The Milky Way. The film firmly avoids a satirical or ironical posture, however, adopting instead a sober approach to the dilemma of faith as it haunts the protagonist. Bettencourt’s convincing performance greatly aids this portrayal, capturing the varied inflections of a mistreated and troubled soul.s theological explorations in
Although the story and the problems it raises don’t exactly build to a grand conclusion, the pervasive sense of mystery and the careful unfolding of new details through each new interaction or piece of dialogue will certainly provide an intriguing treat for fans of films dealing with similar themes and moods.