Al Berto ****
Starring: Ricardo Teixeira, Jose Pimentão, Raquel Rocha Vieira, José Leite, Joana Almeida, João Villas-Boas
Director: Vicente Alves do Ó
Looking back on twentieth century history, it looks to today’s children that somewhere between World War 2 and the 1980s, Europe changed from a conservative quagmire of post-monarchical depression into a neoliberal tolerant society filled with progressives and free-thinkers. Ask them when exactly that change occurred and they’ll probably say with upward inflection “The 60s?” Of course the reality is that the change was gradual, with the strides being made in large cultural centres and trickling slowly down to the continent’s extremities and the further these fringes, the longer it took. For cities in the EEC’s Inner 6, progress strode ahead together, but for those isolated elsewhere, heels were dug firmly into the past, dragging behind with solemn reluctance.
It is 1975 in Sines, Portugal. Al Berto (Teixeira), an artist who has spent the last few years working and studying in Brussels, has returned to his hometown. There, he finds his lavish family home has been repossessed following the fall of Portuguese dictator, Américo Tomás. Like many others in the town, Al Berto decides to squat in his own home, but unlike those who just wanted to carry on with life just as before, he establishes a commune of young free-thinkers and artists, reasoning that he has the space, so his door is always open to those who need it. But while the younger generation of Sines see Al Berto as an almost Messianic figure, the older residents see him as a threat. His support of free love, free expression and free living is posed in direct opposition to the traditions of the town, so the locals begin to try and destroy the utopian community he has established.
Al Berto is an angelic figure, wandering around in long open gowns and long unshorn hair. His face has an ethereal but unusual beauty, his intense but soft eyes intelligently encouraging and protecting his flock. His physical resemblance to Jesus is surely intentional, especially as his group of disciples become increasingly more enamoured of him and his teachings, while the people he lives amongst become progressively reviled by the change in attitudes his arrival represents. In reality, he is simply someone who has experienced freedom and is trying to bring it to the home he loves, but the change is too great and too much of a shock to those whose lives have barely changed in centuries. And so they will stop at nothing until all the good he has created has been destroyed, simply because they don’t understand it.
Add to that Al Berto’s homosexuality, which he expresses openly with his lover João (Pimentão), whose wife Sara (Vieira) doesn’t mind his indiscretions for the sake of the change it represents, and this counter-cultural revolution offends the social, political and moral sensibilities of everyone around it. In the same way we can look back now on Communism and explain the reasons it didn’t work, we too can look at the hippy movement and pin down its failings. By removing itself entirely from society and placing itself provocatively counter to the familiar, it set itself up to fail by being unable to present itself to the outside world as a viable option. But, of course, Al Berto and all his followers are blissfully unaware of this because they are so wrapped up in the utopia they have created together.
Al Berto is a cautionary tale about the dangers of idealism. Just like other films that explore idealised communities (The Beach, Bright Young Things, The Village to name but a – diverse – few), the society becomes the architect of its own destruction. Al Berto has been a proponent of free love, but when João explores this beyond his extra-marital affair with him, he finds himself at the mercy of jealousy. He is mortal after all; and that is his fatal flaw. His movement is demanding a martyr, but he is not prepared to eventually sacrifice his own happiness to support his ideals.
While the latter half of the film descends into fairly standard “destruction of idealism” fayre, it is the way the film has framed its central character that makes this film most enjoyable. He is the personification of his people; his is the utopia, the vision, the fatal flaw. Seeing his comrades following, exploring and exploiting his civilisation is like watching Cain and Abel playing hide-the-snake in the Garden of Eden. Delightfully 70s in its execution, this film is a strong Portuguese entry into the LGBT canon.