Lisbon Story (1994) Review

First published on Little White Lies (July 1 2010) //

When you’re directly funded by the Lisbon tourist board, tasked with making a commercial film promoting the city and its culture, it seems a tad hypocritical to send your film off on a whim discussing how films, ‘garbage’ images, are now only used to ‘sell’ things.

So to then turn the argument back on itself and declare that it’s all fine to sell your soul and your work for a quick buck, seems to make the conclusion even more apparent: that Wim Wenders had completely lost his touch by the mid-90s, after hitting the heights so early on in his varied career with some strong philosophical thinkers like Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) and Kings of the Road.

But the tale is told with a certain amount of charm that almost lets him off the hook. Well actually, all of the charm comes from the characters of soundman Phillip Winter (played here again by Rüdiger Vogler) and Lisbon itself, so it’s debatable how much credit Wim can take for that one.

The ‘story’, which is actually more of a contemplative list of ideas threaded through brightly coloured images, begins with Winter receiving a postcard from his old filmmaker friend Friedrich (Patrick Bauchau) inviting him to Portugal to complete the soundtrack on his as yet unfinished film.

He makes the arduous journey with one leg in a cast, all his equipment stuffed into the boot. Upon arrival Winter discovers that his buddy is nowhere to be found. Befriended by a group of seemingly parentless yet wealthy children (they all seem to have video cameras) Winter entertains himself and his new crew with his sound effect prowess in and around the city. Through the innocence of the children it all takes a turn toward the achingly poetic, with a few masterful touches of post-modernist irony, as in one sequence Winter recreates the melodies of the world, telling the story of a lonesome cowboy out in the desert with just the use of a few simple household items. He continues to explore the city, travelogue style, with his boom and recorder, catching every flap of a pigeon’s wing and every old dame’s footsteps along the yellowy cobble of Portugal’s capital.

When he eventually finds the elusive Friedrich the film takes a dive into uneven pacing and unsure territory, attempting to discuss the universe and reality in superficially profound terms, though making a few valid statements on the current state of the ‘image’: that it is now predominantly used to sell things. These monologues almost seem like a response to fellow auteur Herzog’s comments on the ‘dying of our images’ as becoming ever more commonplace and lackadaisical.

It’s this urge to make deep statements, trying to plug too much kinetic energy into the potential the images and sounds conjure alone, that come across like forced afterthoughts, giving the film an unnecessarily forced tone at the same time urging you, quite successfully, into wanting to go and see the city for yourself. And in its own awkward way it just about works, despite being borderline irritating by the end – especially if you watch the bonus interview with the director, who has the unique power to make you cringe just looking at him.

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