In Paulo Rocha’s debut “The Green Years,” he told the story of a young man from rural Portugal who becomes lost in the machinery of a rapidly evolving Lisbon. Pulsing with similar energy to films of the French New Wave, the style was an effective misdirect for a tale of someone unable to carve a meaningful existence in a system that has no quarter for those that can’t adapt. The newly restored film is a rewarding discovery, and so too is Rocha’s refreshed and rereleased followup, 1966’s “Change Of Life.” For his compelling sophomore feature, the filmmaker takes his exploration of his modernizing country to the coast, this time embracing a neorealist approach to weave another layered, and tragic tale of lives upended by the currents of change.
After spending four years fighting in the war in Angola, Adelino (Geraldo Del Rey) returns to the coastal fishing village of Furadouro. Expecting to resume his idyllic pre-war life and step comfortably back into the romance he left simmering, the young soldier is shocked to discover that his beloved Julia (Maria Barroso) has married and started a family with his brother Raimundo (Nunes Vidal). His masculine pride wounded, Adelino initially declares to Julia, “I’ll never leave you in peace.” The betrayal and anger he feels are directed solely at her, and Adelino affixes a permanent scowl to his face, playing the role of wounded victim.
However, there is little sympathy from anyone for Adelino’s hurt feelings and even less interest in his wartime exploits. Day to day life in Furadouro has become increasingly difficult, the unending tides eroding the foundations of coastal homes, while the once sustainable fishing industry proves to be arduous and unpredictable. Meanwhile, Julia has been stricken with a heart condition, but keeps working, raising her daughter and caring for elderly relatives. She’s matter-of-fact about the precariousness of her life, and how much it has devastated her both financially and physically. A situation that would have been far worse had not Raimundo managed to keep a roof over her head, and food on the table. While Adelino was off fighting in the war, Julia did not have the luxury to indulge in visions of a romantic reunion.
Rocha’s impatience towards wounded male pride is fascinating in both “The Green Years” and “Change Of Life.” The filmmaker refuses to give validation to his protagonists’ egos, but instead deftly delineates and explores the difficulty they face in finding their place as Portugal makes strides to the future. These measures of progress are marked in both films by strong and independent romantic interests — Ilda in “The Green Years,” and the charismatic Albertina in “Change Of Life,” both played by the expressive Isabel Ruth. Albertina is a terrific foil for Adelino, a woman who works in an expanding textile factory that has become a beacon of hope for fishermen desperately seeking a new and steady line of work, and the economic vision of the future. However, the precise physical requirements of the job stymie men like Adelino, who have long been used to labor that is primarily all muscle and no finesse. Plagued by rumors of nepotism and infidelity, Albertina schemes to get the money she needs, by any means necessary, to escape the suffocating confines her gender faces in a rural community. The irony, as Rocha spelled out for Ilda in “The Green Years,” is that Lisbon doesn’t offer much more promise in that regard.
Pensively filmed by Manuel Carlos da Silva and Elso Roque, and delicately scored by Carlos Paredes, Rocha may have pointed feelings about the cultural and sociopolitical shift in Portugal, but “Change Of Life” is hardly a polemic. The director is just as interested in capturing the rhythms of coastal life, with a handful of lengthy and immersive sequences without dialogue or music, that is focused on the everyday tasks of the community. And while much of the picture embraces realism, and largely casts non-actors, several sequences stunningly recall the melodramatic framing of silent cinema, with an emphasis on classic tableaus. “Change Of Life” is a picture clearly made not only with both a sense of cinematic and political history, but with a desire to blend cinematic storytelling techniques as well. What further stylistic explorations could have been had he worked a regular clip, we’ll never quite know — Rocha would not make his next feature until the 1980s.
“Change of Life” makes a remarkable companion to “The Green Years,” both films feeling still urgent and necessary over 40 years since their release. “Change Of Life” pulsates just as vibrantly today in a world that’s undergoing a change in how we contemplate the human cost of modern life under capitalism. [A]
“Change of Life” will debut on Grasshopper Film’s streaming platform, Projectr, on August 14.