The 10 Best Portuguese Movies of All Time

Joseph Richard Francis

With a history going back all the way to 1896 and a whole host of totemic names in its cannon, the story of Portuguese cinema is one that every film buff should know about. To get you started, here’s a selection of the top 10 ultimate Portuguese movies.

Tabu (2012)

Awards and accolades ooze from every facet of voodoo mystery, every ancient tale of folklore and every post-colonial critique of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu; from five-star Guardian reviews to coveted Alfred Bauer trophies from the Berlin International Film Festival. And quite rightly too, because this curious feature film is now the most widely distributed Portuguese piece of cinema in the world for good reason: viewers simply can’t resist the enthralling tale of lost love, half-remembered history, intrepid African exploration and romanticized nostalgia that its flashback narrative affords.

Blood of My Blood (2011)

This gloriously surprising epic drama from acclaimed director João Canijo does well to imbue the simple mundanities of suburban life in Lisbon with heart-wrenching twists and turns that never edge on the melodramatic. The tale follows the Fialho family, ostensibly prosaic, blue-collar people who gradually become embroiled in a web of intrigue and infidelity that threatens their simple life at every turn. Throughout there are compelling performances from Rita Blanco and Cleia Almeida, while Oscar submissions for Best Foreign Language Film and accolades from the San Sebastian International Festival and the Miami International Film Festival are testimony to the work’s success.

A visceral and hard-hitting look at the harsh realities of contemporary Portuguese life on the lower end of the economic spectrum, In Vanda’s Room transports viewers to the claustrophobic interior of the Lisbon slums. The narrative is catalyzed by the imminent destruction of the area at the behest of the government, whose solution to the poverty stricken, drug-using inhabitants is apparently to bulldoze the whole site. What transpires is a brooding, thought-provoking epic of high emotion, which invites an honest appraisal of poverty and listlessness in contemporary Portugal.

Aniki Bóbó (1942)

Taking us all the way back to the birth of the Portuguese Golden Age of cinema, this thoughtful work by Porto’s own Manoel de Oliveira is now seen as one of the embryonic examples of Italian neorealism in European film. It follows a small clique of children who hang around the river banks of the Douro in northern Portugal, dramatizing a love triangle between one of the gang’s newest recruits, its boss, and innocent little Terezinha, the only girl present. In effect, the use of child players throughout allows Oliveira to criticize contemporary politics, morality and the like vicariously—inviting viewers to ask questions about such complex themes through the simplified lens of youth and childhood.

April Captains (2000)

This dramatic take on the totemic 1974 revolution, which put an end to the Estado Novo junta that had ruled Portugal since the days of Salazar, is unquestionably one of the most defining films in the national canon. The movie is famed as much for its sensitive and realistic content as it is for its cinematography. In 2000 it was screened as part of the Un Certain Regard selection in Cannes, and while it eventually missed out on a prize there, the film’s inclusion of figures like Captain Salgueiro Maia remains one of the most famed pastiches to the heroes of the Carnation Revolution in all of Portuguese art.

Our Beloved Month of August (2010)

A meandering slow coach of a motion picture by acclaimed national director Miguel Gomes, Our Beloved Month of August conveys a certain eccentric affability from the get-go. Using that age-old and suitably anachronistic film-within-a-film motif to start the action running, the narrative takes viewers through a series of set piece scenes that comment on the very nature of Portuguese realist cinema, all the while framing the meta conversation with deadpan and sarcasm in excess. And just when you’re ready to give up and surrender yourself to the music festivals and schist villages and the mountains of the Centro Region that dominate the directionless saga, the story takes on a serious edge in the form of a raw and folksy tale of love and passion, complete with Oedipal undertones and a thought-provoking conclusion.

Alice (2005)

In this tragic and depressing piece, director Marco Martins does well to imbue Lisbon with a certain Dostoyevskian shadiness; creating a chiaroscuro of shadows and dark that helps to shroud the story in a nigh on impenetrable veil of mystery. It tells the story of Mário, whose obsession with his missing daughter — the eponymous Alice — grows exponentially throughout, all the while forming a stark antithesis to Luísa (Alice’s mother), who reacts to the loss with apathy, sadness and listlessness. The result is a tale of extremes, examining the destruction brought on by serious emotional disturbance and the divergent changes it has the power to produce in people.

Recollections of the Yellow House (1989)

This pseudo-autobiographical epic (the first of the director’s acclaimed trilogy) is arguably the most eccentric and wonderful of all João César Monteiro’s creations. Its arc is a tale of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained proportions, which edges towards the protagonist’s success before embracing his eventual downfall and destruction. Along the way, viewers enjoy the Dadaist ebb and flow of the director’s philosophical narration, which strikes an uneasy balance between blasphemy, lewd comedic thoughts and absurd megalomania redolent of Raskolnikov. In short, this one’s a must for anyone eager to gauge the curious character of classic Portuguese cinema.

Abraham’s Valley (1993)

This captivating tale by Manoel de Oliveira follows the turns of its namesake novel by Agustina Bessa-Luís religiously, relying on the director’s trademark laconic, thoughtful and often hyper-realist cinematographic structures to portray the haunting character of its central figure, Ema, a strikingly beautiful and magnetic personage who embodies passion and irresistibility throughout. The tale lays bare dominant attitudes to women, and mounts a strong attack on gender stereotypes with its harsh and visceral examination of Ema’s enforced ennui and desires both enacted and suppressed, eventually finding some degree of closure in the inevitability of the final scenes.

Trailer in Portuguese only:

The Tyrannical Father (1941)

Widely regarded as one of the veritable masterpieces of the Portuguese Golden Age of cinema, The Tyrannical Father is hailed for its fearless engagement of pre-war social issues and political norms, all wrapped up in a comic gambit that’s at once deadpan and slapstick in the vein of Chaplin and the American silent movies. The story is built around a classic unrequited love scenario, which sees Francisco Mega—an amateur theater player—attempt to woo the object of his desires with a hilarious and elaborate plan of acting and stagecraft.

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