Al Berto is one of Portugal’s best-known poets, but one does not need to be familiar with his life or his works to appreciate the atmosphere of Vicente Alves do Ó’s latest film, which is based on his life and the journals of the director’s older half-brother, who was once the poet’s lover. The film, screening at the 2018 Melbourne Queer Film Festival, does not tell Al Berto’s whole life story; it focuses instead on his youth and allows him to embody the rise of a Portuguese youth culture unafraid to indulge in the cultural and sexual freedoms allowed in the period immediately after the Portuguese revolution of 1974, during which the conservative authoritarian regime of Estado Novo was overthrown.
Al Berto takes place between 1975 and 1978. During this time, the poet (Ricardo Texeira) returns to his native country after studying painting in Brussels. He decides to dedicate himself to writing and sets up base in Sines, a rural Portuguese town, in a mansion dispossessed from his family during the revolution. There, he begins cultivating an ardent and heartfelt bohemian community of likeminded individuals whose eccentricity, sexuality, and art does not sit well with many of the reactionary locals. In this sense, the openly gay and confident Al Berto embodies the emergence and the rise of a new youth culture unashamed of its ambitions and desires.
Al Berto is also as handsome and charismatic as Mick Jagger, as portrayed by Texeira, therefore embodying a sexually charged symbol of cultural rebellion. Moreover, he is a kind-hearted revolutionary; he occasionally appears to live in a utopian bubble but is also more than willing to let anyone become part of his own little world while enforcing no rules. This aspect of his character is introduced quite early in the film, as João Maria (José Pimentão) follows him to his mansion for the first time. “The door was open,” he excuses himself. “The door is always open,” Al Berto replies.
Most of the tension of the film is generated by the passionate and steamy romance between Al Berto and Joao Maria. As such, Al Berto risks alienating the viewers from a wider cultural context, particularly that of the clash between the bohemian commune and the town locals, which gradually becomes more important as the film progresses. Indeed, this aspect is best explored via the precious character of Sara (Raquel Rocha Vieira). As a member of the commune, one of Al Berto’s best friends, and a woman with writing aspirations of her own, she too dreams of a better life for herself, but faces a moral dilemma by clashing with her own mother and her own working-class background. Unlike the other characters, Sara shows a real sense of connection with the outside world of class struggle, social consciousness, and moral anxiety.
Like Vicente Alves do Ó’s previous work, Florbela (2012), inspired by the life of Portuguese poetess Florbela Espanca, the film revels in the delights offered by the style of its temporal setting through its vivacious costumes and art direction – the demarcations between decadent parties and cultural happenings are constantly redefined. It does not aim to be a history lesson; in fact, its fashionable timelessness and universality is where most of its appeal rests. Al Berto is, first and foremost, a portrait of youth and the film is a portrait of the artist as a young man. Although its main character does not lack the confidence, he is naïve; the film eventually shape-shifts into a coming of age movie about having to face up with the possibilities of failure and realizing that whatever doesn’t kill you may only make you stronger.