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the back of beyond

In May, I spent a week travelling zig-zag fashion through the far north-eastern corner of Portugal — a region known as Tras-os-Montes, or beyond the mountains. I went there because over 20 years ago, I saw a film called Ana in a small left-bank cinema in Paris. It was one of the several films that changed my life.

As time passed, I remembered very little of the film, but what I did remember remained with me as an evidence as clear and incontrovertible as light falling through an open window, or the wind that passes through a field and then is gone. But 20 years on, the first thing I thought when I realised I had an opportunity to travel to Portugal was that now, at last, I could go and see if everything I saw in that film was ‘true’.

The Tras-os-Montes region is a remote fastness hemmed in by hills on most sides, and by the deep cleft of the Douro river valley along much of the border with Spain. Its isolation is at the origin of its reputation as ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’, or alternatively, as ‘one of the most important reserves of silence and of the archaic in the whole of Europe’ (Antonio Pinelo Tiza). Yet it is also a frontier land, a zone subject to constant trafficking, commerce and cultural interchange. One of the central sequences in Ana is a long, partly ironic partly serious discussion adducing extensive archeological evidence on the subject of whether or not the people of Tras-os-Montes could have invented a primitive form of raft which would have allowed them to cross the Atlantic well in advance of Cortes and Columbus.

Ana is one of only three feature films made by Antonio Reis and Margarida Cordeiro — two true artisans of the cinema, who devoted their lives to engaging with the land and the people of Tras-os-Montes, not as objects of ethnographical study, or picturesque material for the imagination, but as partners in a dialectic as rough and as resistant to the passing of time as the rocks their ploughs would stumble on. Antonio Reis died in 1991 at the age of 64. Margarida Cordeiro is still alive, and full of energy, and living in a village in the Douro valley.

Before I left for Tras-os-Montes, I spent a night in Coimbra, where I passed the evening leafing through a large picture book entitled Serras de Portugal (Mountains of Portugal) by Mauricio Abreu and Jose Manuel Fernandes. I was looking for pictures or references which might allow me to narrow down my search for certain sites I had remembered from Reis and Cordeiro’s films. I didn’t have much luck, but instead I came across something just as important and wonderful: the work of Jorge Dias, the founding father of Portuguese ethnography. Dias devoted most of his life to studying the communitarian organisation of villages in northern Portugal.

His two major works were Vilarinho da Furna, uma aldeia comunitaria (1948, republished 1983), a study of a village in Minho province whose inhabitants were later expelled to make way for a reservoir in 1970, and Rio de Onor, Comunitarismo agro-pastoril (1953), an account of life in a small community in the far north of Tras-os-Montes, on the border with Spain. (For a detailed bibliography, see this page.)

Both works analyse in detail how community solidarity was organised and ritualised to form a deeply-rooted and deeply democratic structure whose extraordinary sophistication could survive many ills through many centuries, but not the full frontal onslaught of modernity. For Dias, these communities constituted a heritage which was at once uniquely ‘Portuguese’, and yet of universal value, in what they could teach us now about other ways of living with each other, and with the earth.

My ability to read Portuguese is limited, and so the detail of Dias’ account, even in the summary given by the authors of a coffee-table book, is largely beyond me. But I noted that where for certain authorities, the end of solidarity in Rio de Onor was marked by the building of the road to Braganca, which linked it to a larger, faster-moving, and less human world, for Dias the beginning of the end dated back to the First World War. Those who had fought in that conflict had returned to the village only to rebel against the rigid structures of its life.

How complex must such a rebellion be? What bitterness and what vital aspirations came together to force these men to damn the forms on which their ancestors had relied, and which had failed to save them from the European cataclysm? And what does it say about us — that our perception of society and of ‘freedom’ has more in common with that of men traumatised by war, than it has with those of the families they left behind?

Dias’ work has since been challenged, for instance by Joaquim Pais de Brito. But for many, his reputation remains undimmed. When I met Margarida Cordeiro at the end of my journey, her face lit up when I mentioned his name. Dias had been one of her teachers at university. “He was a beacon to us!” she told me. (This was during the period of fascism under Salazar.)

So much has changed since then. Dias passed away in 1973, his work untranslated and largely unknown outside Portugal. Vilarinho de Furna has been drowned. The ghostly remains of the village reemerge above the water every summer, when the rains dry up. Meanwhile, on the banks of the reservoir there is a small ethnographical museum, filled with beautiful black-and-white photographs of life before the flood, accompanied by texts by Dias, Miguel Torga, and others.

According to a team of researchers who visited Rio de Onor in 1973, the village was already utterly changed compared to Dias’s descriptions. And Margarida told me that her own village bears no relation to her childhood memories of a time when people lived with and for each other. “When we filmed those things with Antonio, we knew that they were disappearing even as we did it.”

The film Ana opens with a family searching for their wet nurse who has gone missing in a storm. It is Epiphany. It is not until the nurse finally returns, that they are able to begin to celebrate the feast of the kings.

Dias described this rite in detail. In a recent article on this elaborate ceremony, Antonio Pinelo Tiza recounts a conversation he had with D. Joana of Rio de Onor. When he asked about the Feast of the Kings, she told him: “The last time I saw it celebrated properly, the way we always used to do it, with all the trappings, was for the film with Antonio Reis and Margarida Cordeiro. And afterwards, we never did it that way again.”

*****

As far as I can tell, none of Dias’ main works on the archaic life of northern Portugal has ever been translated into another language. To do so would be not just a testimony to the universal relevance of the very particular communities whose lives he documented, but also a political act of enormous importance.

[Originally published 7.18.07]