Brazilian director Marcelo Gomes brings his lush visual style to Portrait of a Certain Orient, an evocative tale of a brother and sister fleeing war-torn Lebanon. This marks Gomes’ eighth feature film after acclaimed efforts like Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures and Joaquim. Premiering at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, the movie transports us to 1940s Lebanon as young Catholic nun Emilie is forced from her convent by her erratic brother Emir. With their parents murdered amid civil conflict, Emir convinces his reluctant sister to join him on a life-changing ocean voyage bound for the promise of Brazil.
As they cross paths with fellow migrants on the cramped passenger ship, Emir simmers with paranoia and jealousy while the lovely Emilie finds herself falling for Omar, a Muslim merchant also making the long journey across the sea. When a violent clash leaves one man fighting for his life, the small band of travelers detour deep into the Amazon in search of a cure. Surrounded by both the wonder and danger of the rainforest, Emir and Emilie may discover whether putting the past behind them is the key to starting anew.
With its elegant black-and-white frames and passionate performances, Portrait renders both the perils faced by two Lebanese refugees and the possibilities offered by their adoptive homeland.
A Turbulent Journey of Heart and Home
At its core, Portrait of a Certain Orient is a classic melodrama. Through the lens of a passionate love triangle and fateful journey, director Marcelo Gomes explores resonant questions of belonging, trauma, and cultural barriers.
We open on a Lebanese mountain convent in 1949. Catholic nun Emilie enjoys a peaceful life here, one tragically interrupted when her furious brother Emir appears with a gun, forcing her departure. Their homeland rages with religious civil war after the murder of their parents. Having sold the family home, the unstable Emir views escape to Brazil’s shores as the siblings’ only hope for survival.
The lengthy passage aboard a cramped ship teems with both adversity and opportunity. While Emilie embraces the journey’s communal spirit, forging a sisterly bond with an indigenous passenger and stirring romance with Muslim trader Omar, Emir retreats inward. Traumatized by his parents’ slaying at the hands of Muslim militia, Emir projects his pain as vitriol toward his sister and her lover. His incestuous jealousy toward Emilie mingles with an inability to let go of the past.
When a scuffle with Omar ends in gunfire, emergency forces the quartet to disembark in the Amazon. Seeking treatment from a local healer, they immerse in the paradoxes of the rainforest — at once sublime and threatening. Much like Brazil itself, the landscape beckons with promise yet jeopardizes those unable to adapt.
Gomes sensitively explores potent themes around refuge, assimilation, and reconciliation. Can the siblings leave their ghosts behind in their native land? Does Brazil offer redemption or simply a new terrain for existing conflicts? Through wistful framing and full-blooded performances, the film renders the joys and wounds of the migrant heart.
Evocative Images of Confinement and Possibility
Gomes reteams with regular cinematographer Pierre de Kerchove to craft a visually arresting portrait in black and white. Through considered framing and motifs, the camerawork elicits the dual sensations of confinement and possibility permeating the migrants’ journey.
Shooting in a nearly square aspect ratio, de Kerchove’s composition echoes the cramped ship berths housing our characters. His lens slices slivers of light across the frame, evoking both the bars of a cell and the dappled jungle sunshine. The intricate weave of hammocks slung in steerage hints at identities intertwined yet tenuously so.
Meanwhile, shots of the Amazonian wilderness mesmerize with their scope and texture. As the foursome navigate the rainforest by canoe, in search of the healing secrets of an indigenous village, there is a timeless quality to their passage through gnarled branches and around colossal tree trunks. Life overflows dangerously yet beautifully, much like Brazil itself.
By framing intimacy alongside expansiveness, these images speak to the contradiction at the heart of immigration. To leave home is to abandon the familiar for the unknown, exchanging the consolation of the past for the precarious promise of reinvention. Gomes and de Kerchove poignantly render this tension through sight and composition alone.
Captivating Leads Anchor Melodrama
Gomes assembles a strong international cast to animate this period drama. At its core lies the excellent chemistry between leads Wafa’a Celine Halawi and Charbel Kamel, whose joyful connection fuels the mounting tensions.
As open-hearted Emilie, Halawi radiates beauty, gracing even threadbare costumes with a luminous elegance. Her lively curiosity and easy laughter inject the film with its warmth, even as hardship looms. We believe both her burgeoning passion for Kamel’s Omar and her anguish when devotion divides her from the damaged Emir.
As Emilie’s volatile brother, Zakaria Al Kaakour leaves a lasting impression. With penetrating eyes and wiry frame, he simmers with a paranoid rage that reveals itself in fits of violence. We grasp his trauma even before we fully understand its roots. In Al Kaakour’s hands, Emir earns our conflicted empathy.
While Halawi, Kamel and Al Kaakour form an affecting central trio, the supporting cast adds resonance. As migrant photographer Eros captures their journey, hints of a subplot with Emir suggest avenues left unexplored. And Rosa Peixoto infuses her indigenous villager Lara with quiet dignity, further reflecting Brazil as cultural tapestry.
These transporting performances grant dimension to familiar archetypes: the dazzling ingénue, her dastardly kin, and the charming third wheel. Surrounded by vivid players, we invest deeply in the foursome’s search for connection across barriers of nation, faith and blood.
An Impassioned Tale Finds Acclaim
With Portrait of a Certain Orient, Marcelo Gomes translates the epic upheaval of migration into intimate emotional terms. While the film’s core narrative proves straightforward, its elegant execution offers rewards. Through sensual style and sympathetic characters, Gomes explores the perpetual human drama of displacement and reinvention.
At its most basic level, Portrait utilizes the romantic triangle and family psychodrama as conduits for resonant themes. Can brother and sister alike transcend the inertia of trauma when offered new soil to plant dreams? Or does our baggage forever journey with us? Gomes poses these questions around empathy-stirring protagonists rather than factional polemics. Locale emerges as destiny.
Accordingly, the film drew strong notices from its Rotterdam premiere for atmosphere as much as narrative. Reviewers praised the hypnotic Amazon tableaus shot by Pierre de Kerchove, creating visual poetry to match the migrant heart. Likewise lead actress Wafa’a Celine Halawi earned applause for her luminous screen presence as Emilie, grounding melodrama in emotional truth.
While some pointed to thin secondary characters, most hailed the film as a unique contribution to cinema’s meditation on the refugee’s hunger for home. Gomes joins peers like Iciar Bollain in examining the perpetual cycle of departure and return that comprises the immigrant state of mind.
Given its self-contained narrative, one could imagine Portrait transitioning smoothly to streaming platforms, expanding access to a festival breakout. For now, international programming teams and arthouse audiences stand to spark to its reflective mood and tactile beauty. Anchored in intimacy yet resonant with political echoes, it carries the indelible ring of truth.
An Intimate Epic of Human Resilience
With his latest international co-production, Marcelo Gomes utilizes the visual poetry of cinema to illuminate intimate human truths. Through the lens of 1940s turmoil in Lebanon and haven in Brazil, Portrait of a Certain Orient renders the migrant experience in romantic yet resonant terms. More than a culture-clash melodrama, the film explores the promise and peril of reinvention when one leaves the familiar fires of home for the watchfires of the unknown.
Can we escape the inertia of yesterday’s traumas when we dwell in tomorrow’s land? Gomes avoids blunt parable, preferring nuanced fable. His lens admires the Brazilian landscape’s sensual foliage and waters even as it confronts the greed threatening indigenous rights. The director celebrates the Arab world’s vivid passions while exposing its clannish constraints.
Ultimately this is a film about human beings in transit seeking their best selves, wherever that journey may lead them. Lushly shot and tenderly performed, Portrait earns its optimism through clear eyes rather than blinders. A sensory feast of sighs and tears and laughter, it renders the courage of starting over in a strange land. No better time than now to bring its message home.
Portrait of a Certain Orient
A visual tone poem on the perils and possibilities of migration, Portrait of a Certain Orient views displaced lives through an empathetic lens. Dynamic performances and luscious photography cultivate an atmosphere both swooning and ominous, as liberating reinvention brushes up against paralysis of the past. While secondary characters feel thinly sketched, the central quartet compels attention with the warmth and danger of ambiguous bonds. Sensuously crafted and emotionally astute, Marcelo Gomes' latest international co-production proves a rewarding arthouse entry.
- Beautiful black-and-white cinematography
- Strong lead performances (especially Wafa'a Celine Halawi)
- Resonant universal themes related to immigration and cultural assimilation
- Emotionally potent love story and central relationships
- Visual motifs and composition convey key themes
- Secondary characters and subplots feel underdeveloped
- Narrative lacks complexity at times
- Pacing flags in second half
- May rely too heavily on melodrama and love triangle tropes