Interview with Cristèle Alves Meira: ““Alma Viva” speaks of this Portugal of which we don’t know much”

In this opus which combines an almost anthropological realism and a tragedy of old tales, the director and director drew inspiration from her own experience to tell the ills of the population of an isolated village in Portugal. Interview with Cristèle Alves Meira.

– Your film “Alma Viva” was made over several years, why take so long to make this feature film? And what has changed in your script?

– It’s often not easy to make a feature film. In my case, it took time because I hadn’t gone to film school and so it was the first time that I had to deal with writing a screenplay for the cinema. Besides, I had 10 years’ experience in theater directing, but I arrived in the cinema without going through a specialized school. It was when I joined a film school in France that I started writing the screenplay in 2017. It took me a year to a year and a half to have a finished screenplay around 2019. There, what took time was finding the money for this film and therefore proving to myself that I am capable of doing it.

In the meantime, I made short films which served as preparation for this long film and which were shot in the North-East of Portugal. These short films were presented at the Cannes Film Festival, which earned me encouragement from people who began to say that I am capable of embarking on the production of a feature film, that I was able to finally finance. Afterwards, I lost a year due to Covid-19 and therefore I only started filming in 2021. But, in fact, all this did not change the script because I wanted to shoot the film as I had imagined it without changing anything.

– Your feature film depicts several complex subjects, including forced immigration, the connection we have with the dead, urban legends, belief in the invisible and others. How did you build this harmony?

– There are several layers in this film but what it speaks about is the title which indicates it “Alma Viva”, that is to say “the living soul”. It is above all a film about the living and the dead, about mourning and about this little “Salomé” who will be possessed by her grandmother because she died of a bad spell. It is mainly a portrait of women of three generations (the granddaughter, the grandmother, the aunts) who live within a small society in a cramped environment marked by strict rules from which they try to escape. release. Behind, there is also immigration which has a link with money worries, beliefs and the childhood represented by little Salomé.

The film also questions respect for the dead, which is the most autobiographical aspect of the film. Because my grandmother, when she died, she remained unburied for two years. I witnessed arguments and family disputes, which aroused in me a feeling of injustice as is the case for the famous Antigone. So I said to myself that we will have to talk about it since this story is not just mine. There are many families who, for matters of inheritance, have dishonored the dead.

– The dialogues of the film “Alma Viva” are made in French and in a particular dialect. How much does this choice represent you?

– In fact, I was born in France but my parents are Portuguese, which means that I am the child of an immigrant. I grew up with French at school and with Portuguese at home. Every vacation, I went back to my parents’ village in Portugal. And so, I am made of two cultures and two identities, French and Portuguese.

The village Tras-Os-Montes in the North East region of Portugal, where the film was shot, experienced a large flow of migration in the early 2000s, often to France. It is a village completely deserted throughout the year but in summer all the Portuguese return there. This is the case of Salomé (main character of the film) who returns from France to spend the holidays with her grandmother.

In this village, people speak French but others opt for Portuguese to communicate with the former inhabitants of the village. Through this question of language, I also wanted to deal with the problem of families divided by immigration, between those who have succeeded in their life in France and who return to the village and those who continue to have a hard life there.

This is a portrait of women from three generations (the granddaughter, the grandmother, the aunts) who live in a small society in a cramped environment.

– The character of the little girl “Salomé” played the role of the silent witness of the world around her. That of the blind was the reconciler, the maker of the arrangements. How did you come up with these characters?

– In many stories, especially Greek tragedies in the ancient theater, there is often the character of the blind man who is the one who sees more than the others or who has a gift of omniscience and divination. That’s how I thought of this character who, despite his handicap, sees the world in a deeper, more poetic way than the others. On quite a few occasions, he pronounces profound sentences, in particular on the condition of women, on money, on death where he says: “The living close the eyes of the dead but the dead open the eyes of the living”. He is an important character in this film that I took great pleasure in writing.

For the character of “Salomé”, he represents my vision of childhood which is not a heavenly period. In fact, it is a child who is going to have to confront death, this nocturnal horror, confront the spirits, the enemy of his grandmother… It is, in fact, childhood which has a time ahead of adults who are quite violent and vulgar, materialistic. In this film, it is little Salomé and the blind character who have understood life.

– The scene showing “Salomé” eating the chicken head to get rid of bad luck upsets people’s minds. What message did you want to convey through this scene?

– You are not the only one to be shocked by this scene. But it makes me wonder because it’s a pagan ritual. In fact, what shocks us the most is when we approach witchcraft, the figure of the witch is taken over by feminists or the woman who wants to be free.

In my film, I re-question this point but, above all, witchcraft in its side linked to beliefs. I also wanted to show how being taken by the evil eye, the curse, can give rise to violent stories within a community or a family. I wanted to address this subject which is still taboo despite being present in many countries.

– In addition to the complexity of the topics covered, the film combines comedy and tragedy at the same time. How important was that to you?

– Often, the comedies that we are given distill the same types of laughter. This film looks for feelings in places that are not usual and therefore we do not know whether to laugh or cry, we often laugh up our sleeves in bizarre situations. In life, I assure you, this is often the case in tragic moments. My film is between an almost anthropological realism and at the same time it looks for tales of tragedy, stories of American genre films.

– Your feature film “Alma Viva” is shot in a remote village in the North-East of Portugal which is your native village. Is it a way of showing the other side of the country away from shiny images?

– Where we shot is my mother’s village, it’s true that she grew up in a fairly poor family, the house where we shot was my grandmother’s house which we tried to reopen for the film. What I wanted to show, through this film, are the living conditions in the village which always push many families to emigrate.

In other words, if we emigrate it is because we need it, otherwise we would like to stay in our country. I wanted to remind you that Portugal is also this hyper-deserted region which has lost its population, set out to conquer a better life elsewhere. I had this conviction to show Portugal in its reality because the Portuguese cinema remains nevertheless the business of a small elite of the capital which makes films a little more literary and more intellectual.

For “Alma Viva”, it is an auteur film but also a popular one. Beyond the clichés, he tells about this Portugal of which we know little because it is my identity and where I come from, and I could allow myself to tell it.

Collected by Mina ELKHODARI

Interview with Cristèle Alves Meira: ““Alma Viva” speaks of this Portugal of which we don’t know much”