Sebastianism still persists within sections of Portugal, though it has developed into more of a mystical belief system than a literal one. In many ways this legend summarizes the duality of the Portuguese mindset: Like a messianic Schrodinger's cat, Sebastian is simultaneously alive and dead in the minds of believers. This logic runs deep within Portuguese cinema, which strives to see its homeland from a dual perspective, adopting metatextual techniques in order to question the idea of a national identity.
The best way to describe metatextuality is by way of a work of art that calls attention to its own creation. The Warner Brothers short Duck Amuck, where Daffy argues with his animator, breaks the fourth wall, brings attention to the mechanics of animation, and overtly questions narrative tropes, is a classic example. It covers the most common techniques used to create a text in which different authorial voices compete for narrative control. Auteurist Portuguese cinema often uses these same techniques (among others) to question what it means to be Portuguese—so often, in fact, that the metatextual process itself becomes one of the most prominent identifiers of a national voice.
As perhaps the most representative voice in Portuguese cinema today, Miguel Gomes has strived to create a cinema that operates on different levels at once. Gomes set the stage with both Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu, by suggesting narratives within narratives, and in both cases he blurs the line between documentary and fiction. The movies are as much about the process of storytelling as they are about the stories themselves, and both overtly address the impossibility of fully capturing the spirit of a place or a people on screen. In Our Beloved Month of August the film supposes to be about the municipality of Arganil but often divulges into a story of an embittered and underfunded film crew. In Tabu, the question of Portugal’s identity and role within colonial Africa loses itself through the grainy filtered eyes of romance.
With Arabian Nights, Gomes takes this further by creating a trilogy of films inspired by stories lifted from newspapers and bulletins from across the country. In conversation with One Thousand and One Nights, the film documents a post-crisis Portugal through fantastic stories apparently gathered by a dedicated group of journalists. Through allusions to Portuguese lore, documented incidents, and its maker's own overarching presence, the film is more than an anthology or a collage; it's a metatextual text about Portuguese society. Above that, the journalistic aspect looms over the project, adding another layer and emphasizing the outside world. This has a dual effect, suggesting both the practical difficulties of making a film in Portugal and the image of the Portuguese artist as a divisive figure as well.
Gomes follows in the footsteps of filmmakers like João Cesar Monteiro, who featured prominently within his own films, playing different versions of his character João de Deus ("João of God"). Monteiro's films were self-referential, political, and meta in their own right. Along with Manoel de Oliveira, he's long been held in the top ranks of the nation’s greatest filmmakers. Monteiro also was a controversial figure, for blurring the line between reality and fiction in the dialogue surrounding his works. Perhaps most contentiously, for his 2000 film Branca de Neve (Snow White), he claimed that the reason for the film being almost entirely black was that he'd put his jacket on the camera while shooting and forgot to take it off. When asked if he had anything to say to his audience, Monteiro replied, “What I want is that the Portuguese audience go fuck themselves." Also he alluded to the flawed and broken funding system for cinema. Gomes would do something similar at Cannes in 2008 with Our Beloved Month of August, whispering rumors about his own production. As J. Hoberman documented:
The filmmaker arrived in the backwoods village of Arganil, script in hand and crew at the ready, only to discover that his funding was gone. Undeterred, he went on to film anyway—documenting whatever came to hand, including the inner workings of his own production, until he figured out a way to coax a simplified version of his original scenario out of this cinematic doodling, which he filled in the following summer.
By regularly appearing in their own films as themselves, blurring the line between the director as a person and as a character, Monteiro and Gomes make it difficult to even see the line between film and reality. But this isn't just some storytelling conceit; they're making political statements about the Portuguese government, and national identity, while also addressing a Portuguese audience which understands the nuances of cultural allusions and political realities.
The omnipresence of so many Portuguese filmmakers within their own work makes an outlier such as Pedro Costa notable for his absence. Costa, who blends documentary and fiction in films including In Vanda’s Room and Horse Money, showcases the lives and experiences of Portugal’s most disenfranchised people. True elements are fictionalized, and vice-versa, but Costa’s own absence from these works raises the question of who has control over the narrative of Portuguese identity—a narrative which otherwise rarely accommodates the fullest possible expression of the Portuguese experience.
This year, João Pedro Rodrigues released his new film The Ornithologist, which also draws on mythic tales for a story about Portugal. Similarly metatextual, this film tells two concurrent stories: that of an ornithologist lost in the woods, and the mystical journey of Saint Anthony of Lisbon. Rodrigues appears as Saint Anthony within the film, again allowing for the presence of filmmaker as a conscious paradox. Gleefully blasphemous, The Ornithologist breaks down the wall between viewer and subject, through techniques that reveal both image and frame—as when a camera flashes and the film's momentum breaks, in favor of an extended-vacation slideshow.
Dense to the point of near-indecipherability, The Ornithologist piles up religious allusions that will be lost on most audiences. The film portrays legends and stories of sainthood familiar to most Portuguese viewers, but obscure to foreigners. This does end up being counterbalanced by the almost Jodorowskian spirit of the film, which blasphemes these religious symbols through sex, violence, and absurdity. But while Jodorowsky’s films are told from the inside, Rodrigues maintains a critical distance by invoking the presence of an artist-creator guiding the film’s action. Viewed through a queer lens, the mythology of Portugal is seen in a new light that exposes its absurdity, but also showcases it with an artful, chilly distance.
Films like The Ornithologist and Arabian Nights explore mythology by reappropriating it for the contemporary age. Blasphemous and political, they use legends and myths to pick up the question of what it means to be Portuguese in the 21st Century. These films yearn for the return of Sebastian ironically, toying with the notion of Portugal leading a new spiritual and cultural empire. But as that possibility seems ever distant, and the nation's cultural supremacy seems like a relic from long ago, metatextuality allows for Portuguese artists to associate with past and future simultaneously, and to reflect on the duality of their national identity, a self-image both uncertain and boundless.