Old-fashioned film about the Carnation Revolution 10 November 2020
On 25 April 1974, the nearly 50-year right wing dictatorship of Antonio Salazar’s Portugal was overthrown by a military coup. There was little violence and it became known as the Carnation Revolution.
Night Train to Lisbon (2013) weaves a gentle mystery story of the period with an unlikely ‘detective’ in school teacher Raimund Gregorious (Jeremy Irons).
The solitary Raimund, who lives a self-confessed boring existence, is teaching in Bern when he saves a young woman from jumping off a bridge. When he discovers an obscure book in the pocket of the raincoat she has left in his classroom, Raimund becomes absorbed by its contents and goes searching for answers.
He boards a Lisbon-bound train and tracks down the author’s home and from here many parts of the tale are told in flashback.
Amadeu de Prado (Jack Huston) is the son of a famous, reactionary judge but the boy is cut from a different cloth. Resembling the life of the young Argentine, Ernesto (Che) Guevara, Amadeu has a good heart and a revolutionary soul, part driven by his school friend Jorge (August Diehl, played as an old man by Bruno Ganz).
The inevitable love triangle develops when Jorge introduces Amadeu to Estefiana (Melanie Laurent), a beauty whose prodigious memory holds the names and contacts of the underground revolutionaries, the two boys have joined.
This unfolds for Raimund when he visits Amadeu’s home and surgery, where he meets the doctor’s sister Adriana (Charlotte Rampling), who pretends her brother is still alive. It is she who has pieced together Amadeu’s writings and had them published in the book Raimund carries.
When his glasses are broken in a road accident, Raimund is tended by optometrist Mariana (Martina Gedeck) and she provides another link to the story. Her uncle Joao (Tom Courtenay) knew Amadeu.
The younger Joao has had his piano-playing hands mangled by the secret police’s head honcho (the Butcher of Lisbon) and this villain’s connection to the story plays out in several unique strands.
It all sounds rather complicated but director Bille August lets the story flow evenly and the flashbacks are well told with easily recognisable younger versions of the contemporary characters, who may or may not still be alive.
This tale unfolds, surrounded by a haunting score by German composer Annette Focks.
August has fashioned an old-style movie. It has story, good acting and surprises within the backdrop of a little-known historical time.
The Estado Novo or Second Republic took power in 1926 and Salazar came to power seven years later. He ruled with a secret police force before being debilitated by a stroke and Marcello Caetano became No. 1. It was Caetano’s government the Carnation Revolution toppled but it was Salazar’s legacy which prompted the coup.
The story of the young revolutionaries is exciting for the bookish Raimund. “His life, his world is extraordinary. It makes mine seem so insignificant” he says of Amadeu and expresses awe of all the young characters as he is about to board the return-journey train.
“They lived, whereas my life…apart for these past few days…” he tells Mariana.
She asks why he doesn’t stay and we know there is no reason why he should not. Camera fades as the two remain on the platform with no answer given. We can only hope.
COINCIDENTAL NOTE: The coup began with the airing of Portugal’s song from the 1974 Eurovision competition…The Eurovision in 1974 was important for another reason too: it was the start of ABBA‘s international career, as they were the group to win, representing Sweden.
Bille August is a Swedish director and one wonders if the ABBA connection first brought his attention to the story? Or, was he merely making a movie from a best-selling novel of the same name by Pascal Mercier, the pen name of Swiss philosopher, Pieter Bieri?