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Into Their Labours: The Films of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro

António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro together created one of the most influential bodies of work in the history of Portuguese cinema. Made between 1963 and 1989, their films deal with rural communities, rituals and landscapes, blending reality, fiction into a singular survey of the north-eastern Portuguese region of Trásos-Montes. This retrospective offers a survey of their work, from Reis’s earliest shorts to the pair’s final featureincluding films screening for the first time in the UK, presented in new digitised copies from Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema.

Reis and Cordeiro developed their cinematic vision alongside their regular jobs: Cordeiro as a psychiatrist, Reis as a poet, art critic and film lecturer. Their broad set of interests allowed them to craft a catalogue of work best understood through instruments sometimes regarded as alien to the art of cinema: sociology, music, painting, anthropology, physics, even architecture.

The duo’s work acknowledges the intimate connections between the elements and human life, drawing parallels between soil erosion and the destruction of plant species with the disappearance of regional populations. The pair initially intended to document and record different aspects of the rural TrásosMontes region, but their films’ originality ultimately lies in their radical transfiguration of reality their use of different arts and disciplines, bringing together ancient folktales and scientific treatises.

Made during years of political turmoil and rapid sociocultural change, Reis and Cordeiro’s films now function as living archives. By observing rural communities, studying their historyand acknowledging both their dignity and their singularity, Reis and Cordeiro developed a uniquely non-naturalistic way of depicting the world around them.

The screenings in this season are accompanied by a series of related special events, including a music performance, a studyday and a reading group, taking place at the ICA and Birkbeck, University of London.

Into Their Labours: The Films of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro is organised in partnership by Open City Documentary Festival, the Essay Film Festival and the ICA.

The screenings and events were made possible with the support of CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership, Instituto do Cinema e do Audiovisual, the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network, and ABIL, the Association of British and Irish Lusitanists. With special thanks to Cinemateca Portuguesa-Museu do Cinema.

Painéis do Porto + Do Céu ao Rio + Jaime + Introduction
Thu 8 Dec 19:00, ICA

António Reis’s first collaboration with longtime partner Margarida Cordeiro highlights this collection of three Reis shorts. This programme of three Reis shorts from 1963 to 1974 includes JaimeReis and Cordeiro’s first collaboration.

Painéis do Porto
António Reis, César Guerra Leal
Portugal, 1963, 16 minutes, Portuguese with English subtitles 

Commissioned by the city council, Reis’s first film is an urban symphony to Porto’s hustle and bustle that tracks local workers’ movements across the city. From these images of everyday life, more abstract motifs emerge – linked to nature, buildings and colours – that herald the visual experimentation which defines Reis’s subsequent films.

Do Céu ao Rio
César Guerra Leal & António Reis
Portugal, 1964, 17 minutes, Portuguese with English subtitles

Another commissioned film, Do Ceú ao Rio follows the construction of several dams in north-west Portugal by a national electricity company. While laudatory of both the projects’ technical complexity and their impact on the lives of the region’s inhabitants, the film also serves as an unexpected counterpoint to the considerations of rurality and the relationship between humans and the natural world in Reis and Cordeiro’s later work.

António Reis
Portugal, 1974, 35 minutes, Portuguese with English subtitles 

The beginning of Reis’s collaboration with Cordeiro, assistant director on this short, Jaime explores the life and work of Jaime Fernandes, a rural worker hospitalised with paranoid schizophrenia. In the final years of his life, Fernandes started painting and drawing relentlessly – and one of his hundreds of sketches was discovered after his death by Cordeiro, then a psychiatrist at the same hospital. Starting with Fernandes’s drawings and writings, Reis shoots in the sites where Fernandes was born, lived and died. But rather than create a linear biography of a man he never knew, Reis uses the materials available to summon up a new world.

Painéis do Porto and Do Céu ao Rio are UK Premieres.

António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro: Study-Day
Fri 9 Dec 10:00-17:00, Birkbeck

Accompanying the retrospective devoted to the work of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro, this study-day will take place in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, bringing together scholars and researchers from Portugal and the UK. It intends to provide context and in-depth discussions about the duo’s work, while relating it with the Portuguese tradition of Cinema Novo and ethnographic film.  It will present historical and socio-political context to the films, while framing them through notions like those of translation, passage and transformation.

These notions account for different processes of transposition that take place within the films themselves, but also in the ways of transmitting them, be it the movement to recover objects from popular culture then recontextualized as art; the way the film works with literary texts or different forms of writing; the exercise of subtitling these films into another language or “telling” them to someone; or the technological transposition from analogue to digital in relation to the recent digitisation works made by Cinemateca Portuguesa-Museu do Cinema.

Entrance is free but booking is required. Register here.


10h Arrivals
10h15 Raquel Morais (season programmer): Introducing António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro
10h45 Screening of Domus Bragança (1975, 20′)
11h05 Catarina Alves Costa (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa): Ethnographic experimentation in Reis and Cordeiro’s Trás os Montes + response by Rui Lopes (Birkbeck, University of London)

12h15-13h30 Lunch Break

13h30 Screening of Ecrã — Ana (1981, 10′)
13h45 Hilary Owen (University of Oxford): Freeze-Framing the Nation in Trás-os-Montes: On Reis and Cordeiro’s Feeling for Snow + response by Raquel Morais
15h00 Ricardo Matos Cabo (independent film programmer): Some thoughts about the use of language and translation in Trás-os-Montes
15h45 Round-table + Final remarks

With the support of CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership, Instituto do Cinema e do Audiovisual, the Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network, ABIL, the Association of British and Irish Lusitanists.

Trás-os-Montes + Introduction
Fri 9 Dec 18:30, ICA

António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s first feature is a journey through this almost mythical region of north-east Portugal, a tapestry of micro-narratives where past, present and future become intertwined. Developed with a limited budget during the filmmakers’ holidays and free time, Trásos-Montes was initially intended to portray different aspects of this culturally and geographically unique region from flora to local crafts and architecture. However, the film turned into something entirely original, complicating straightforward definitions of documentary and ethnography. Rather than attempting to crystallise the region’s objects and practices, the directors reinvent its sounds and images, inaugurating a new chapter in Portuguese docufiction.

Ana + Introduction
Sat 10 Dec 17:30, ICA

The second feature in António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s trilogy is centred on a tranquil matriarch played by Cordeiro’s mother (Ana Maria Martins Guerra). Ana occupies a universe that is both heavenly and mundane, ancient and young as indicated by the name of her beloved cow, Miranda, a gentle creature named after a historic town in Trásos-Montes.

Accompanying a group of ethnographers on a visit to the region, Ana captures both a primaeval world and a lost unity between humans and nature, exploring notions of transhistoricity and eternal return. A word that reads the same backwards as forwards, Ana is also the name of the directors’ daughter (Ana Cordeiro Reis), who appears here as a toddler –thus announcing the film’s circular structure and its journey through the paths of birth, life and death.

Rosa de Areia + Introduction
Sun 11 Dec 16:30, ICA

António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s final feature is their most essayistic work, bringing together science, art, metaphysics and magic.

Rosa de Areia draws on a diverse series of texts, from the centuries-old Atharva Veda to Michel de Montaigne and Carl Sagan, to reflect on the human condition from ancient times to the presentas symbolised by the sand-rose, a geological formation whose survival depends on the combined action of water, wind and sand. At the same time, the film is also directly concerned with the physical reality of the TrásosMontes region of north-east Portugal. Starting from a practical imagination, attributed to the people of the region, Reis and Cordeiro work with materials and textures that echo the labours of these rural communitieswhile also fabulating in collaboration with them.


Pedro Páramo Reading Group
Tue 29 Nov 18:30 (Birkbeck), Tue 6 Dec 18:30 (Birkbeck), Sun 11 Dec 14:00 (ICA)

Three sessions focused on Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novel, which directors Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis had planned to adapt.

Directors Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis started adapting Mexican writer Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novel Pedro Páramo for the screen in the late 1980s – but Reis’s death in 1991meant the project was never completed. Taking place across three standalone sessions, this reading group focuses on Rulfo’s novel, which echoes many of the concerns evident in Reis and Cordeiro’s films – from the realities of peasant life and the depopulation of rural areas to themes of memory and forgetfulness, the living and the dead.

With the support of CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership.


António Reis (1927-1991)

An important figure in the Porto cultural scene during the 1950s and 1960s, Reis published several poetry books and wrote art criticism. He was a member of Cineclube do Porto, one of the most important film societies in the country. He was assistant director in Manoel de Oliveira’s Rite of Spring (1962) and also wrote the dialogues of Paulo Rocha’s Change of Life (1966). In 1977 he was appointed film lecturer at the National Theatre and Film School (Lisbon), becoming a major influence on his students, which helped maintaining his legacy.

Margarida Cordeiro (1938)

Born in Trás-os-Montes, Cordeiro studied medicine in Porto, where she started practicing before moving to Lisbon with Reis in the late 1960s. A medical psychiatrist, she took a particular interest in reading about natural sciences and religion, besides also attending sociology and ethnography courses. These passions show through the films.  After Reis’s death, Cordeiro tried to keep her film practice, aiming at finishing the duo’s project Pedro Páramo without success. She continued practicing psychiatry until the late 1990s, before retiring to her home region in Trás-os-Montes, where she currently lives.

António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro met in Porto in the mid-60s. Cordeiro became involved in film through Reis, and he had access to the protagonist of his seminal work, Jaime, through her. Two people of very different natures – Reis was talkative, Cordeiro more reserved – they lived and worked together for three decades, establishing a close, mutually complementing collaboration. The duo planned a series of projects that were never completed due to Reis’s premature death. Their works had an enthusiastic international reception on initial release, having been shown in festivals like Berlin, Locarno, Venice, London, Edinburgh, and spaces like the Flaherty Seminar. More recently, these films have been the object of retrospectives in South Korea, the US, Portugal, Spain and Brazil.