The second stage of structuring the narrative of a film is to build upon and around the psychological foundations of each scene. I realise I could be quoting at least two of the architects of Cinema I most admire and that have so influenced my work: Michelangelo Antonioni or Andrei Tarkovsky. Yet, this is the […]

The second stage of structuring the narrative of a film is to build upon and around the psychological foundations of each scene. I realise I could be quoting at least two of the architects of Cinema I most admire and that have so influenced my work: Michelangelo Antonioni or Andrei Tarkovsky. Yet, this is the best way I can express what I’ve always instinctively implemented in my own output.

Architecture is one of my main passions outside film. Whilst I strive to attain the same rigorous simplicity that, for example, Le Corbusier displayed in all his designs – which elevated common materials from the level of mere functionality to something altogether more transcendental – my opening sentence does not just relate to form.

Once the narrative is outlined, with its core fundamental sections in place, there comes the need to locate those fragments of time, those shreds of mood and atmosphere in space. This should never just adhere to stylistic choices or a need to display production values. The space in which the action takes place has to emphasise a variety of filmic aspects which, in my practice, are invariably pursued with the following hierarchy:

Character – Ideally, the most crucial scenes display a coherence between space or surroundings and the psychological/emotional state of the character. His/her background may also have an influence, alongside personal aspirations, inner doubts and desires, repressed or otherwise.

Architecture itself – That remarkable imprint we leave behind, conjured up by necessity or sheer need to master the various elements in Nature, can at times overwhelm and override nearly everything else. With that comes a sense of contemplation, an appreciation of geometrical harmony or a very specific gaze upon the unintentional/previously unnoticed correlation (if not conflict) between certain lines or details.

Story/Plot – The way the above are employed is, in effect, more respectful towards the narrative than conventional filmmaking would let you know. The use of space and architecture within such parameters guides you more profoundly through the story than you would consider. It can do so in a subtle manner (or not), but it’s always aiding the plot to progress, one way or another. In other words, it may not be what you expect or particularly think to be vital, but it is what you need in order to fully appreciate what is unfolding before you.

I’ve always been extremely sensitive to the mood of places. Certain sites have had the most powerful, lingering impact on my being and often I have felt a very physical response to what is mostly an ethereal residue of a building’s history or past function. By now, I have mastered the ability to weave mood into a given space or sculpt the right atmosphere onto the façade of a building, but to come across it in ways that are beyond my control – that are inherent, regardless of where I position the camera – is as thrilling as casting the right person for a part.

Certain cities are abundant with such spaces. You find it in their neglected corners, in the way once innovative buildings can still stand proud in the face of baffling planning permissions. The suburban, the periphery, the northern city which speaks of quiet resentment in a country that may favour the more international capital. They all fascinate and inspire me as potential settings for the right tale. Yet more than once I have had the privilege of filming in three major European cities that enriched the projects in question to unexpected levels of cinematic flare. These were Barcelona, Rome and Lisbon. The films I have made in these cities, between 2003 and 2008, display key moments in which everything that I have so far outlined in this article was eventually distilled and implemented.

The examples go as such:

In Torpor Revisited, a character who has found a renewed harmony in her life spots a face from her troubled past in the crowd. This is something that brings into question her present existence and as she revisits the area of that sighting, the Gothic quarters of Barcelona provide the right sinuous journey back in time; the graffiti tattooed on the old surrounding walls evoke her once moral decline, whilst the CCTV cameras pierced into historical corners point to the possible voyeuristic directions that the plot may take.

In Stolen Waters & Other Absences, the former lover of a deceased poet starts by looking over Rome, the backdrop of their affair, from the vantage point of Villa Borghese, where she herself appears to be scrutinised by the accusing gaze of various sculpted busts that include the painter Giotto and the poet Dante Alighieri. As she descends into the city, a stroll around the Trastevere, with its architectural punctuations of the religious and funereal kind, gives way to the voluptuous seclusion of Quartiere Coppedè.

And in Absences of Mind, the film that precedes Stolen Waters in the unfinished trilogy, a reclusive lesbian writer with a terminal disease gives herself to a moment of private exploration of her body – an intimate, lugubrious act which brings evocative, sunlit architectural details in sudden flashes that underline her progressively altered state. Such details include the ceremonial shot of the rosary façade of a church and the emphasis on the phallic quality of an old chimney from derelict lime ovens, but they are entirely open to interpretation. It’s only when the writer’s immersion in herself is complete (by means of a slow fade to black) that we see the male, who’d been kept out of the equation, emerging and ascending up old steps which in turn offer a privileged view of Lisbon – the city of spies and intellectual exiles.

If this was just about location, anyone with enough time and taste could make a film. This is about structuring the film language by means of paying attention to your surroundings.

It’s about understanding the essence of your material and setting the right foundations that will prevent it from crumbling. It’s about communicating with the right language, like the late, great Antonioni does in so many of his films (which paradoxically have been defined as ‘works of sheer incommunicability’). He does so, more strikingly than any other time, in the end sequence of The Eclipse (1962), where details of previously seen suburban desolation are all masterfully edited together to rapidly culminate in the titular eclipse. The fact that it also highlights the emotional/existential crossroads at which the main character finds herself has to be acknowledged as one of the greatest acts of respect and consideration for his audience that a filmmaker ever achieved.

JOÃO PAULO SIMÕES IS A PORTUGUESE FILMMAKER LIVING AND WORKING INDEPENDENTLY IN SHEFFIELD. HIS WORKS INCLUDE ANTLERS OF REASON AND AN ARRAY OF MUSIC VIDEOS AND DOCUMENTARIES. VISIT CAPTURAFILMES.BLOGSPOT.COM.

JOÃO PAULO SIMÕES.