'The Green Years': Paulo Rocha's Restored Debut Is A Captivating, Cinephile Treat [Review]

“Better remember, you were born in a backward village, and you need to learn to hang on. Almost all my neighbors were run out of the city….The city has devoured many, but hasn’t laid a hand on me.” 

Lisbon and its people are perpetually at odds with each other and themselves, seeking their identity and struggling to eke out a meaningful life, in Paulo Rocha’s captivating 1963 debut “The Green Years.” Newly restored, the film is considered a landmark in New Portuguese Cinema, but this is no exhumed relic. Brimming with contemporary resonance, and moving with the rhythms of la nouvelle vague, “The Green Years” is a story of generational trauma, and the psychic toll of a city and country accelerating towards a Western lifestyle with little regard for those who can’t keep up, or whose backs prop up modern transformation. 

If the capital of Portugal has yet to find itself, the feeling is mutual for 19-year-old Julio, played with Jean-Pierre Leaud-esque heart on sleeve tenderness and turmoil by Rui Gomes. From the first moment he arrives in Lisbon, he’s unintentionally abandoned and left at the train station, his Uncle Afonso (Paulo Renato) stopping for a drink with friends that turns into an evening closing the bar. Left to fend for himself and make his way to Afonso’s, Julio is fortunate to find the help of a kindly elderly gentleman, who hopes to spare the young man from being taken advantage of, and mourns the old days, when the people driving horse-drawn buggies and carriages “began the day drinking champagne.” 

“Lisbon is a beautiful city. You’ll like it. This is a paradise.”

Undeterred, Julio initially enters his new life with optimism. Working as an apprentice shoemaker in a shop that’s pointedly located below street level, he meets Ilda (Isabel Ruth), who has also come from the countryside, but whose circumstances couldn’t be more different. She has landed work as a maid with an affluent family, living in their stylish, au courant apartment. The metaphorical physical difference between their two stations, could not be more pronounced. While the amenities and comforts of an upper-class life are still distant for both Julio and Ilda, she can still immerse herself in the experience, even if it’s not truly hers.

As they embark on a fledgling romance, Ilda aspires to a moneyed lifestyle, but her frustrations in achieving them are driven not by class divide, but the limits society places on her gender. “Sometimes, I’m fed up being a woman,” she declares. However, Julio is more traditionally minded, chasing an innocent dream of marriage and settling down, but growing increasingly disillusioned with a city that seems more confounding with each passing day. The confidence he brought with him from home slowly erodes, and his sense of masculinity becomes threatened. Even the arrival of America’s latest cultural contribution, rock ‘n roll, leaves him literally wrong-footed on the dance floor, another sign that before he’s even hit twenty, the world is outpacing him.

“The whole town is just a nightmare.”

Beautifully photographed and lovingly shot by Luc Minot (who astonishingly only served as cinematographer on three films in his lifetime), and scored by the graceful guitar strings of composer Carlos Paredes, Rocha’s lilting, episodic construction of “The Green Years” is deceptive. What initially plays like a filmic postcard eventually shows a soured edge to the rapidly evolving Lisbon, Julio’s bitterness increasingly making outward manifestations, until the film’s shocking climax, one that on first glance, could be read as a misogynistic conclusion. However, Rocha’s final shot — Julio stared down by the headlights of an array of cars on a busy street — repivots the focus to the blinding weight of Lisbon itself, one that can drive someone to do something foolish and desperate to reclaim some sense of power.

“The Green Years” is a fantastic rediscovery in the truest sense, a film that really hasn’t been discussed in the canon of pictures that shaped modern, cinematic storytelling. With the film now back in circulation, and looking better than ever, it’s a gift for cinephiles, and should hopefully bring Paulo Rocha a deserved space in the conversation of influential filmmakers. [A]

“The Green Years” restoration will debut as part of Grasshopper Film’s Projectr service on August 7.