Mal Viver / Viver Mal
An Interview with João Canijo
by Daniel Ribas
For the last two decades, João Canijo has been a vital reference in contemporary Portuguese film. In nine features and two documentaries, his films reveal the subliminal forces which act upon and shape the contemporary Portuguese collective imagination. Over this period of time, he has investigated the most sordid and turbulent transformations in Portuguese society and the historic and social contradictions caused by those transformations. Tracing a map of a diverse and marginal country, these films attest to how families are the troubled setting of sociological change, where violence looms as an instrument of power and conflict.
From the industrial town of Sines in Sapatos Pretos/Black Shoes – as well as a Portuguese community in France (Ganhar a Vida/Get a Life), a rural whorehouse (Noite Escura/In the Darkness of the Night), a north-western village (Mal Nascida/Misbegotten) – to a public housing neighbourhood on the periphery of Lisbon (Sangue do Meu Sangue/Blood of My Blood), these films discuss the periphery as a place where economic and sociological changes coexist with traditions of patriarchal violence. Throughout his work, João Canijo has also been on the search for everyday reality, fine-tuning a method with his actors, so as to provoke a contamination with reality. This method also affirms his place in contemporary film, with a directorial style which explores the performance of the scenes, making it so the camera is an attentive observer of that reality. That is also why these films attempt a confusion between fiction and documentary, which is the authorial mark of his work.
A culmination of his oeuvre, Mal Viver / Viver Mal /Bad Living / Living Bad(2023) is a diptych that puts all of these dimensions into play, focusing on a hotel and the pulverization of the unity of space and time, transformed into two films with complementary angles: the story of the family running the hotel (Mal Viver) and the stories of the guests who temporarily occupy it (Viver Mal).If the first film was built from the director’s experience and from his work with its actors, the second one is an adaptation of three plays by August Strindberg: Playing With Fire, The Pelican and Motherly Love. The films feature an ensemble cast of actors who have shone brightly in Portuguese film and television panorama: Anabela Moreira, Rita Blanco, Madalena Almeida, Cleia Almeida, Vera Barreto, Nuno Lopes, Filipa Areosa, Leonor Silveira, Rafael Morais, Lia Carvalho, Beatriz Batarda, Carolina Amaral and Leonor Vasconcelos.
In presenting your films, you always submit that they stem from an essential premise. In this new project, what was the starting premise? And how does it relate to the premises in the other films?
This project stems from one fundamental concept: anxiety. That is, how anxiety can prevent love; and how the manifestation of that love can prevent one from living. Anxiety that prevents one of the protagonists from having a normal relationship with her daughter: anxiety towards the responsibility of raising her. The anxiety of having to love her daughter keeps her from loving her.
This premise is also present in your previous films.
There’s an Ingmar Bergman quote that has become very important to me (I first read it when I was twenty and only got it twenty years later): a film has to come from an idea that is present in every scene and in every shot. I only realized it completely in Blood of My Blood. This conception of cinema doesn’t mean it has to be evident, but it is crucial for there to be an idea that drives the films. And, from Blood of My Blood onward, that’s where all of them have started. For example, in Fátima, we started from a paradox between the search for the transcendental and human nature. But Fátima also had a specific condition: a context in which we could have a group of women be together for twenty-four hours a day. After having discovered the situation – a pilgrimage to Fátima – I discovered the theme to fit the situation.
Your filmmaking process is quite complex. After the premise, which we’ve talked about, you organise the dramatic structure – some of your films are loose adaptations of Greek tragedies, for example. In this new project there is also a driving force: the playwright August Strindberg, and his successor in film, Ingmar Bergman.
When I used the Greek tragedies, and their dramatic structure, I did so in a more naïve way, which had to do with a certain degree of insecurity and the perception that a dramatic structure like that could not fail. Now it’s got nothing to do with that anymore. Over the last few years, I’ve realized Bergman is becoming more and more important to me. Not so much in the formal aspects, but more so in the way that he works on the subject matter. And, like everyone knows, Strindberg was Bergman’s spiritual master. Because anxiety has everything to do with Bergman, and, because of his relationship to Strindberg, I went and read all of Strindberg and got a lot of ideas out of it. The truth is that it comforted me. And then, when the guests appeared (the second part of the project), at a later stage, I thought it would make perfect sense to work on loose adaptations from Strindberg.
Another part of your process is, of course, something you’ve been trying since Get a Life and which probably was best implemented in Blood of My Blood, which is your work with the actors and the way they are ‘contaminated’ (your words) by reality.
Right, it’s always been like that, and the contamination by reality is decisive for an actor’s construction of a character. However, that wasn’t necessary in this last film, because the reality is their interior. There’s the persona and there’s the person: and the reality, in this case, stems strongly from their person, not their persona. So, the research was in the sense of getting the actors to embrace that idea.
But then there’s the next part, which is very important in your process, which is working on the text with the actors.
Or creating the text with the actors, in fact. This film comprises two very different work processes. In the case of Bad Living, there’s a bigger manipulation, because I already knew where I wanted the actresses to get to, but I wanted them to get there in their own way. I already had many structured ideas; even the key scenes and the key dialogues existed already. However, there was also a therapeutic research: I went through a process to remember things I had forgotten, or that I was blocking out, from my personal life. That work was very important for the structure of the script. I went to therapy for over a year (I didn’t mislead the therapist: she knew what it was for). And a lot came from there and the script was very organised. So, there was some degree of manipulation to get to the subject of anxiety. In Living Bad, the process was completely different: it came out of Strindberg’s plays. So, we went about deconstructing the plays to adapt them to the actresses I was working with. I didn’t write any dialogue. It all came out of the rehearsals. Maybe some lines of dialogue in Bad Living weren’t written: they are reminiscences.
This process implies that your work with the actors begins long before the shooting. And that’s a fundamental part of your method.
It’s not just my method, it’s also master John Cassavetes’ and Mike Leigh’s, who do the same. Shakespeare did the same thing, and Strindberg, in the preface to Miss Julie, says the same. It is from this work that the screenplay is born. These are not really rehearsals: they are discussions with the actors, at length, all of which are recorded. The ideas that make up the scenes come from there. In the case of Living Bad, the scenes already existed, more or less, because they are in the plays; in Bad Living, they also existed in my head, to a great extent, and the screenplay was crafted out in the rehearsals. After these discussions there is a long break, in which a screenplay is made out of all which was generously given in the rehearsals. And then there is an improvisation over the written scenes. That’s where the final dialogues come from. In the shooting , there is no improvisation.
You do the hard work of transcribing interviews and assembling a screenplay out of them.
I have some assistants to help with the transcription, but then I’m the one who assembles the text. In Blood of My Blood, I did it on my own and it was insane. In Strindberg’s case, before he grew completely schizophrenic, the plays were always autobiographical and the situations stemmed from scenes from his own life, in a very twisted and manipulative way. There’s a monologue called The Stronger, which is the situation of his wife when she realizes he’s having an affair with another actress, only, mean as he was, he had them play each other. And when I realized this – I knew Strindberg, but I was unaware of these details –, I abandoned my reserves.
You have said that you work with women because you think they are much better than men.
They are much more generous, they have a much bigger capacity for laying themselves bare, for being there.
Can you speak a bit more about that? And in this particular film, you are working with different generations of actors. All of them stars in Portuguese film and television. Rita Blanco, Beatriz Batarda, Anabela Moreira, Leonor Silveira and also very young actors, like Madalena Almeida.
They have the generosity, the intelligence and the sensibility it takes to be able to give something of themselves. I always work with the same people, and although I’ve come to find some new people, I always go back to the original ones. And in the end, it’s always the same people. For example, this is the first time I’m working with Leonor Silveira, but I’ve known her since she was were very young and we’ve always been friends. They’re the actresses I like! Working with them is very intense, very productive, very tumultuous and sometimes hellish. I know that, in their own way, each one is going to allow me to steal a lot from them. And then they become part of the family.
One of the things that viewers who don’t speak European Portuguese are unable to get in your films is the way you always embed everyday language in your films.
I’m able to do that because it comes from rehearsals. In In the Darkness of the Night, the scenes with the prostitutes are the reality. They are scenes that happened to those women in their work. Nothing was made up. It’s research and stealing from reality. And then they played it themselves. It’s never my creation, and I think this is the way to go: I just steal the things which interest me. In Bad Living, there are sentences and situations which were stolen from the past, and many of them came to me in therapy. When Philip Roth died, a few of his quotes were going around, and he said something like, ‘therapy didn’t do much for my neurosis, but it did do wonders for my writing’. The colloquial lines are the ones that came out viscerally from those situations of exposition and generosity from the actresses, when we are discussing the scenes. And then in the improvisations. And then I select them, of course.
Something that is also important in all of your films – maybe not Fátima, because it’s a film about a trip – is their setting. So, why did you choose to make a film in a hotel?
The choice of the hotel was very simple and practical. After the hellish experience of making Fátima, I wanted a single location. And then I thought – maybe a bit under the influence of Strindberg, even though none of his plays are set in a hotel – that it might be interesting to use a declining hotel, which was no longer viable (it’s not the case in reality, but that’s how it appears). And, so, the hotel idea appeared very early on.
But that original idea of yours had to do with the hotel owners trying to survive in a declining hotel, and not with the guests.
The idea was the hotel owners resigned to the inevitable collapse of the hotel because they are also resigned or fatalistic about the inexorable collapse of the hellish life they live together. The guests appeared for practical reasons, having to do with the project’s financial sustainability, and then we quickly realized that there was another film in it. Living Bad doesn’t have a theme – I mean, it could be something like ‘disgraced love’ or ‘twisted love’. What it does have is a formal value, which then blends in with Bad Living: the same space, the same time. And that was the idea that structured it all. But it is a formal construction, rather than a thematic one.
That formal idea connects with the experience of Blood of My Blood, where some of the scenes include two parallel stories in the same shot.
Blood of My Blood was originally meant as two films, like this one. The scenes inside the family home were the same, only they were shot differently. But there wasn’t enough time to add two more weeks of shooting, at least, which would allow me two make two different versions of each scene inside the house, which, after all, make up about a quarter of the film. So, we reached the solution of joining the two films in one. But it was supposed to be two.
But, in a way, Bad Living is already somewhat built from the lessons learned in Blood of My Blood, because the guests’ stories are always in the background. There’s always a connection between the foreground and the situations happening behind it.
In Blood of My Blood, the shared scenes were to be exactly the same, but their meaning would be completely different in the two films. Not in this one: what counts is the same time and the same space. And, so, the characters [the hotel owners] are not alone. The truth is that they could be alone: this could be like The Shining, without the horror. They could be in an empty hotel. But the fact that there are guests around adds another dramatic dimension to it.
One of the essential characteristics in your films is that, because you build your scenes in very tight spaces, there’s a deep claustrophobia and a psychological violence that stems from it. Your films are always very violent.
It’s about claustrophobia and about people who live locked in, who create their own claustrophobia, in the case of Bad Living. And claustrophobia is violent. Those pent-up relationships are always on the verge of exploding into violence at any given moment. But that stems from anxiety.
Right, it stems from anxiety, but it also stems from something else, which you’ve talked about before, and that is still present, albeit more faded, in Bad Living: the life of families in Portuguese culture is still heavily influenced by the constrictive ideology that comes from having endured a very long dictatorial regime.
It is a defining idea in this project: all families are dysfunctional. And families are extremely violent within themselves. The gist of it is: the grandmother’s anxiety ruined her daughter’s life; the daughter’s anxiety will ruin her granddaughter’s life. And this is passed on directly from grandmothers to granddaughters and great-granddaughters. And it’s claustrophobic because they can’t get out of themselves.
Beyond that, you don’t avoid scenes of physical violence. A lot of filmmakers would ellipse the violence: you don’t.
The violence scene in Bad Living was created by Rita Blanco. The violence was to be more Bergmanian, like in Autumn Sonata , that was the plan. A pent-up, psychological violence.
In these films, we see that mothers have the power to manipulate their daughters’ lives.
When they live under the anxiety potentiated by their children’s existence, because that anxiety isn’t just about their own life any more, about dealing with their own life, it’s also about the responsibility that comes from dealing with their children’s lives. Mothers often become monsters who are unable to be mothers. That is the paradigm of anxiety. There is not greater expression of anxiety than a mother’s feel towards her children. In Blood of My Blood I put forward the idea of ‘unconditional love’: a mother who risks losing a daughter in order to save her. There’s no greater demonstration of unconditional love. Here, it’s the opposite: a mother who lives with such anxiety that she becomes absolutely incapable of being a mother, even though she is the perfect mother. Anxiety makes it so being a mother becomes a task which needs to be accomplished. This is passed on from great-grandmothers to grandmothers, from grandmothers to mothers, from mothers to daughters, and so forth. It is endless, and they are all going to have a hard life. And that’s why I went to therapy: so that I could understand it and then to be able to pass it on to the characters, so that I could understand what happened to me. I had blocked it all out. So that I could understand how a mother’s anxiety can destroy her relationship to her daughter and how it can destroy her daughter’s relationship to life itself, I had to try and understand how it happened to me. That was my research. It wasn’t the actresses’ research. We can only speak of what we know, of what regards us. That’s what Bergman did and that’s why I’m growing closer to Bergman.
But the subject of the mother, and the mother’s control over her daughters’ lives, which often is an irrational control, is also present in previous films: In the Darkness of the Night, Get a Life, Misbegotten.
Yes, that’s right, but it was probably unconscious. I’ve always been fascinated by Electra. One of my first films – called Filha da Mãe/Lovely Child – was already an adaptation of Electra. I was obsessed with the character, without knowing exactly why. There are two things I read a long time ago – I read some interviews with Bacon by David Sylvester and then I read the more theoretical book by Ernst Gombrich. And all of those painters, they paint what’s in their soul. And, in the end, that’s what Bergman did. That’s what can give meaning to the rotten lives we lead, what can keep us from suicide. In the end, that’s it. And the next one is going to be wholly on that.
Ever since Blood of My Blood, your kind of cinema, which was already leaning that way, is about observing the real. Long shots, smooth camera movements. There’s a desire for the scene to come alive on its own, and on the actors’ performance.
The idea, in the first place, is to avoid illustration. I mean, avoiding the imposition of a point of view, as that is a paradox, because even if you try to impose one, the performance is always going to be different. That is the research that I do, continually. – Then I finally found someone [Leonor Teles, the director of photography in these two films], much younger than I am, but who speaks the same language. And we have the same spiritual masters, so it was truly an artistic collaboration. It’s formal research, which is unfinished, and it starts mainly with the formal aspect of things. – There’s a formal aspect which has to do with Bergman and the reading I’ve been doing lately, which is about making films about things which are profoundly meaningful to me, which make profound sense and are profoundly important to me. Like Bergman did. So my situations are, I won’t say autobiographical, but they are vital to me. And that has been my rediscovery of Bergman, over the last five years.
The film plays out almost like the filmmaker’s therapy or catharsis.
It’s catharsis and it’s also a capacity of laying yourself bare, which you don’t have when you’re younger. In the end, it’s about something an actress said and that I read long ago, which was: ‘acting is being more serious than in life’. In the end, that’s what it’s about: trying to make the films more serious than live. That’s the subject, the formality is another. They are two separate things.
This film is also connected to a play you saw and that was also set in a hotel.
That was one of those coincidences of life and of fate which makes it so other people having similar ideas to yours can give you comfort and reassurance in your own. People you admire and who’ve had similar ideas, which allow you to say ‘this is exactly what I meant to do, and it works’. It was the work of a young Australian director. When we discovered the hotel, I immediately had the idea of setting the scenes in the windows to the rooms. Then I saw that he directed a series of Strindberg plays [Hotel Strindberg, 2018] – and, coincidentally, some of them are the same ones I used – and doing exactly that, using a hotel as a storytelling device. I wasn’t inspired by him: he reassured me.
How was the search for the hotel?
We were looking for a hotel which was not in its peak, a place in decay, but which wasn’t a ruin. And an assistant of mine searched through a whole lot of hotels from the south to the north of Portugal and, from her photographs, we made a selection. However, a hotel had already been chosen, only I was afraid that it no longer existed, or that it didn’t match my memory of it. We saw several hotels, and we left the one which was already chosen for last. And when we got to the hotel which was already chosen, it was a trip back in time, it hadn’t changed; it was exactly as I remembered it, when I went swimming in that hotel’s pool on the weekends, in the early 1960’s. There was nothing else for us to do, that was it. The hotel is very well kept because the owner is an architect and his father is the architect who originally designed it, so, he honours his father’s memory and he keeps the hotel exactly the way it was. Which means that now it is modern again.
What is your relationship with Portuguese film and with film at large? We know there are authors you like, such as Bergman. You worked as an assistant for Manoel de Oliveira. In Mal Viver, a scene from a João César Monteiro film appears.
César is not an idol of mine. I was César’s friend. And I found him immensely funny. He had a truly extraordinary sense of humour and we got along very well. It’s not so much an homage as it is, ‘look, César is alive’. And it’s my favourite film of his [A Comédia de Deus – God’s Comedy]. No one teaches anybody anything, but I memorized some of the things Mr. Oliveira said. First, when you’re doing whatever it is in art, you’ve got to honest with yourself. And Mr. Oliveira was also extremely loyal to me. And I to him. But I don’t have a master, nor do I have any references in Portuguese film. My masters, in the meantime, have changed a bit – because now I’m looking for my own methods. But it’s mostly Cassavetes and his Chinese disciples. When I first discovered Cassavetes, in the early 1990’s, it was a revelation, especially seeing the audition scene in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The girl is doing the audition and we don’t see her face, nor Ben Gazzara’s face. We see Gazzara’s back and the girl’s legs. And it’s all there. It’s the opposite of illustration. Without seeing anything, you see everything. And the same with the Chinese filmmakers: especially Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai.