Life is full of suffering. This is a cliche on account of it being so true. Staying hung up on your problems won’t get you anywhere. The question is how you deal with them. And yet there is something cathartic about not doing anything to solve them and just complaining to an audience instead, which is what Luís Miguel Cintra does in Manoel de Oliveira’s Mon Cas. The film is divided into four sections and takes place on a proscenium stage. The first three sections deal with a group of actors who self-consciously read from a script they’re trapped within, namely Jose Régio’s “O Meu Caso”, and the fourth is a retelling of “The Book of Job.” The characters in the first three are dealing with personal issues and there is competition between them for the audience’s sympathy. Cintra delivers a diatribe somewhere between a confession and a complaint. It calms him to do so, to get it all off his chest. The catharsis is short lived, however. The other characters need time to speak, too, and the director is getting annoyed with the actors for being so selfish; he has an agenda that is being compromised by studio demands and doesn’t want to hear them whine about their problems.
The scene starts over from the beginning, this time sped-up, silent, and in black and white. As the scenario is repeated a deep, off-screen voice delivers an existential monologue about himself in the third person, about his birth and death. This text is from Samuel Beckett’s “Fizzles.” What was a wacky, hyper-reflexive play on a gaudy set with unsympathetic characters becomes surprisingly earnest and introspective. The play is repeated once more. It’s in color again. It’s sped up like the previous section, but the ambient audio has returned through some kind of distorted filter. And in the background there is a projector playing scenes of wars taking place at the time. We know these images; they relativize our problems within the grand scale of human misery. In making an appeal for empathy, however, they have the unintended effect of numbing us to the suffering of others. If anything, we resent the problems on screen for minimizing our own. There just doesn’t seem to be enough space.
In the final section we see Job in a dystopian junkyard covered in wounds. It’s even more theatrical than the first three sections, and yet paradoxically it’s the most somber. It deals with the suffering of an individual like the others, but there isn’t any rejection of artifice, and there isn’t a fixation on it either. Job doesn’t make appeals to his friends for sympathy; he bears his pain indifferently. There is a reverent expression through the absurdity of the mise-en-scène and excessive makeup. I wonder what this section would have been like had it not been preceded by the other three, which so foregrounded the issue of the character’s self-awareness of themselves, of the script, of the stage and their presence in it. I thought de Oliveria must have been making a critique of the social situation of art and theatre at the time, as if he wanted to point out that it couldn’t get past it’s navel gazing, but then as the film was ending some little girls showed up dancing and throwing flowers, and they gave the Mona Lisa to Job like a trophy for his steadfast commitment, and this was all so incomprehensible that I had to abandon such a literal interpretation and see where else the film would take me, and then it came to end.