The work of the Somogyvári-Feszt duo is an experimental documentary film-mail which even among avant-garde films counts as rare hybrid. Mark Cousins’s 2012 movie What Is This Film Called Love addressed to the iconic film director Sergei Eisenstein, managed to introduce this unique form to a wider public, but even knowing Cousins’ piece full of rambling contemplations and symbols, Carta Azulejo still seems revolutionary.
Carta Azulejo was first shown in the competition program of the 40th Hungarian Film Week and won the awards for best documentary and best cinematography. In his evaluation László Babiczky, one of the festival’s jurors stated that one of the most apparent fault of the Hungarian documentaries how they often lack of emotional charge which would help the viewer commit to the depicted topic. In his opinion this emotional guideline typical in fiction films is adopted and often used by “Western” documentary filmmakers. Therefore Carta Azulejo was a particularly colorful patch of the festival, as one of its main qualities is the guardedly structured but lightly presented balance between the intellectual and the emotional charge. But Somogyvári and Feszt achieved this balance without borrowing anything from the fictional narration besides the chronological structure of Nober’s monologue. Instead they used the form of lyrical avant-garde films to connect different documentary techniques.
The key to the film’s formal and thematic harmony is that the filmmakers consequently expanded the unique character of Portuguese azulejo art onto the whole film structure and created multi-layered symbol system around it. This structure was developed step by step and is a result of several coincidences. Somogyvári wanted to make a film-mail, “that someone sends to someone and has a concrete recipient”. He was looking for a character who lost his connection to his loved ones. As it looked like he could not find the right person, he started to develop another idea about azulejo art. He was working on a “fine art film” and he wanted to transform the part-whole relationship of the tiles to film. Then accidently Nober Sanders, who himself embodied the synthesis of the two concepts, came into the picture. He left Ji-Paraná to move to Amsterdam, then to Lisbon. He wanted to be a filmmaker but became an azulejo painter. His life story, his laconic-poetic narration is the spine of the movie, it systematizes and explains the rushing sequences and the collage-like inserts.
The azulejos which have been a recognized aspect of the Portuguese culture over five hundred years do more than illustrate the interaction between countries and eras: they also smuggle art into everyday life. To see painted tile-work in Lisbon one does not necessarily have to go to a museum, a church or a castle. Azulejos are found everywhere: on the walls of restaurants, private apartments, schools or train and metro stations. As permanent inhabitants of common spaces azulejos inevitably connect the profane and the artistic. The same applies to Carta Azulejo which mixes the unusual lyrical avant-garde form with more canonized documentary film language. With this gesture Somogyvári and Feszt adopted the two trends of azulejo painting: the ornamental and the narrative style. Just like the Portuguese tiles, the images of the film commute between functioning as decoration and as story teller. The talking head parts and the narrative sequences depicting Nober’s everyday routine are bound by various lyrical inserts. Besides the azulejo-cavalcade these moving collages incorporate images of flyers, advertisements, graffiti and close ups of sculptures.
As for the relation between text and images Carta Azulejo is again unique on the documentary palette. The objects turning into symbols, even if in different forms but keep on reappearing, from which the most dominants are the ones representing traveling, referring to both distance and connection (yellow tram, rails, plain etc.) According to the timing between the images and the narration three categories can be distinguished: illustrative images appearing parallel to the monologue, images foreshadowing the related anecdote and images recalling a previously told story. Besides spicing up the film’s structure and creating more layers all the three types have their own purpose.
The images which immediately translate the text to moving pictures, such as the work at a construction or the illustration of a spectacle Nober described as “golden brown, spectral light,” soften the eclecticism, facilitate interpretation and help to avoid the over-use of talking heads. The images foreshadow a story-line, transform the film into a puzzle and increase its intellectual charge. For example a longer shot of a cup of coffee is explained later when Nober includes it in one of his anecdotes. The images repeat a previously told story, ensure the joy of feedback and affect the viewer’s emotions with identification. When at the end of the film the viewer sees Nober’s daughter playing with a mobile phone, he senses it as something already familiar.
Somogyvári and Feszt did not forget to include humor and irony into their diverse film language repertoire. Among the images working parallel to the narration there are several which appear as comical and witty equivalents of the told story snippet. When Nober explains how his ex wife “did not leave him room, not even the possibility to lie” we see a tree growing out of concrete stairs. His thoughts which led to the break up are accompanied by images of women’s faces painted on walls, naughty drawings and a man holding a gun against his head.
Contrary to Cousins film-mail Carta Azulejo emphasizes personality; its playful riddles help the viewer deepen their emotional identification with the topic and the characters. Instead of the academic references used in What Is This Film Called Love (Robert Frost, Frank O’Hara, Eadweard Muybridge), Somogyvári and Feszt went after more easily comprehensible hints. Though a general knowledge about the history of azulejo art enriches the analysis with further details, all the metaphors and symbols work within the framework of the film and they do not necessarily require special lexical memory. Carta Azulejo stays original and witty without moving away even for a second from its audience. Just like azulejos it insists on inhabiting everyday spaces and reaching everyday people.
Written by: Dorottya Szalay
To watch the film click on the picture.