João César Monteiro’s Recollections in a Yellow House (1989)

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Recollections in a Yellow House

Director: João César Monteiro

Portugal, 1989

Introduced in an opening quotation, The Yellow House in the title of Recollections in a Yellow House refers to a prison. This film, a self-proclaimed comedy by João César Monteiro, follows a cinematic version of Monteiro living in a boarding house and worrying about life, sex and death. He has many adventures, many of them seemingly inconsequential, set up only to reveal his rather twisted sense of self-preservation and greed. He is a character with low morals and evokes a fool of a bygone era, someone who stands outside of the fray but without the wisdom or insight that we have come to associate with these characters. The film’s prison, referring not only to the actual place, but the social, cultural and self-made trappings which continually keep the various characters from moving forward and elevating themselves above their poverty and unhappiness.

The naivety of his character seems to be a direct evocation of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, who João César Monteiro tributes in small idiosyncrasies that his character adopts. This is by no means a Chaplin film, however, and does not revel in overt comedy as much as it suggests the absurdity of destiny and the humour in the inconsequential. The comedy emerges from the absurdity of the film’s characters and the scenarios, which suggest desperation, misplaced priorities and an appreciation of the self above all else.

João César Monteiro’s physical presence lies as the central point of this comedy, as if his socially perceived ugliness were a joke committed by God. Much of the film’s first part deals with the various ailments that plague him, both real and imagined. Though there is no evidence, he believes his room is undertaken by bed bugs, and is soon consumed with pain in his testicles and swelling in his mouth. The doctor believes it is a vitamin deficiency – understandable if you see João César Monteiro’s thin physique, which seems all the more impossible considering the size of his head and his height. He almost defies logic, as one wonders how such a body could possibly support a complex internal system and a head so large. These elements come in direct conflict with the two young women who also have rooms in the boarding house. They are quite clearly portrayed from the POV of the João character who seems them equally as objects and opportunities. He adopts the dirty old man persona, which I have come to understand he uses in many of his films, to suggest a complex set of sexual norms that at once strips him of power and yet, pushes him in a position of authority and power over them. Why do we feel for his female victims them? Though not without virtue, it is perhaps their beauty and youth above all else that renders them pitiful, and there is this sense that João is only enacting a pre-destined plan that would have seen the end of their “innocence” (in one way or another, innocence is not associated with virginal purity necessarily).

Recollections of a Yellow House succeeds due to its comedy; there is no real cruelty or malice involved in spite of some rather morally dubious acts that take place. They are presented, quite plainly, as realities that may be absurd but are part of our landscape nonetheless. As João navigates life, he subverts and mocks the various industries and systems that hold society together. Though hardly a noble character, there is something to be admired in his ability to poke holes in society’s concept of self and twisted sense of order that punishingly crushes those who are weak.

–      Justine Smith

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