REVIEW: ‘Alva’ (2019) is Rubbish, in the Purest Sense

Rating: 2 out of 2.

“A hollow, misguided foray into slow cinema”

Ahhhhhh, slow cinema. Slooooooow cinemaaaaaa. Cinema that take a very looooong time on veeeeeery little plot. Cinema that moves. As. Fast. As. A. Slug. On. Xanax. Sit back. Try not to fidget. It’s aaaaaaaaaart, darling.

Here’s the thing: I’m generally pretty sympathetic towards this sort of stuff. There’s a broad division between impatient viewers who dismiss “slow cinema” as pretentious nonsense and turtlenecked espresso-drinkers who show it too much deference on account of its opaque, art-house form. I tend to err on the side of the latter. Sue me.

But here’s the other thing: Alva is not a good film.

I should probably explain myself. Alva follows Henrique, a sheep farmer in the Portuguese highlands. He goes about his business, uh, farming sheep. Then he drives into town and shoots two people. He spends the rest of the film on the run, naturally. Throughout, the handheld camera fixes its unblinking gaze on Henrique as he eats sardines out of a can, plods through the forest, eats some berries from a bush, plods back to his house, eats a sheep, plods back into the forest, eats some more berries from a different bush… come to think of it, most of the film is spent watching a guy in a knitted jumper eat terrible food. It’s like the worst ever Nigel Slater Christmas special. And it all happens very. Very. Slooooowly.

I can just picture the scene, in between takes on location in the foggy hills of Portugal: cinematographer Hugo Azevido tinkers with his 16mm camera, imagining what the critics will say when they get a load of his film grain (“shot with textured, tactile beauty…” he dreams. “Gritty but otherworldly…”). Henrique Bonacho in the lead role stamps his feet to keep warm. “Again, but slower,” barks writer-director Ico Costa. “Mister Costa,” Bonacho whimpers, “how many more berries do I have to eat?” He rubs his belly and frowns. “I think I’ve got typhoid…” “Shut up Henrique,” snaps Costa. “It’s art. Now eat the damn berries and look morose…”

I know, I know, I’m being dismissive. There is, to be fair, some interest to be had: the film’s structure around the violent crime at its centre allows us to see, in complete deadpan, the life of a seemingly ordinary man before and after committing a heinous act. The focus on eating reminds us of the primary, animal requirements of the body which never go away, even in the most extreme circumstances. The film seems to be illustrating the underwhelming impact of such extreme circumstances – yeah, you might be a double-murderer, but you’ve still got to eat, sleep, and think.

The problem is, the experience of watching the film is not at all interesting. And before a bunch of Chantal Akerman fans kick my teeth in, I’d like to be clear that it’s not because it’s slow, or repetitive. Alva is woolly and noncommittal; thematically scattershot and aesthetically one-note. Yes, it comes clad in art-house trappings: it’s shot on 16mm film; its average shot length must crack the two-minute mark; there are fewer lines of dialogue in the film than there are sheep. But it’s still rubbish, in the purest sense.

As I’ve said, I even like this kind of thing. Hell, get a few pints down me and I’ll probably declare Michelangelo Antonioni the greatest filmmaker of the 1960s (a few more, and I’ll say he’s the greatest ever). I unapologetically love that sweeping shot in Twin Peaks. But slow cinema is not the same as slack cinema. Good slow cinema is a high-wire act; incredibly difficult to pull off. Alva simply does not have the technique or the ideas to succeed. It seems to hint at divisions like rich vs poor and nature vs civilisation, but never takes those thoughts anywhere. It brings in visual motifs and then forgets them. It suggests a mystery in Henrique’s motives, but kills the intrigue with clumsy exposition in the last act. The whole thing feels borrowed from Romanian New Wave cinema, but only on a surface level, with none of the black humour or incisiveness. It’s just plain bad.

Back in the Portuguese hills, the fog has turned to drizzle. “Amazing,” declares Azevido. “Critics love grey films!” He’s so excited his hands are shaking, which, he thinks, will only make his camerawork grittier. Poor Bonacho’s hands are shaking, too, but not from excitement. He’s spent all night trying to sleep in the cold for one long take, and he’s got hypothermia. “Mister Costa,” he mumbles in delirium, “What’s the film about again?” “What?” says Costa. He panics. He’s forgotten. Has anyone even asked this question? “Shut up Henrique. Do it again, but slower.”

Dir: Ico Costa

Prod: Jérôme Blesson, Ico Costa, João Matos, Jerónimo Quevedo

Cast: Henrique Bonacho

Release date: 2019