The Gilded Cage: Comedy the Portuguese way, salted and dried
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The Gilded Cage: Comedy the Portuguese way, salted and dried

French-Portuguese writer-director Ruben Alves first met the actor who would become his leading man in The Gilded Cage by chance at a cocktail party at the Cannes film festival. ''Ah, there's nothing to eat here,'' Joaquim de Almeida grumbled ''in a good Portuguese way'' and Alves knew he had his man.

Nostalgia for traditional Portuguese food is one of the running jokes in his new film, a beguiling comedy of manners about an emigrant family living in Paris. Who could possibly long for bacalhau - salted and dried cod - in the world's capital of fine food?

Alves knows the Portuguese diaspora in France intimately. The son of Portuguese parents who left political turbulence and poverty behind when they fled their country in the 1970s, he was born in France. His parents were just 18 when they emigrated, and his father took work as a casual labourer in construction and his mother was a concierge, just like the lead couple in his film.

''I wanted to honour my parents, honour their lives, and how they moved and settled in France,'' explained Alves during our interview in Paris in mid-November.

Ruben Alves, director of <i>The Gilded Cage</i>.

Ruben Alves, director of The Gilded Cage.

Photo: Olivier Vigerie/uniFrance films
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Apparently, a loyalty to Portuguese food never diminishes. In The Gilded Cage his characters Maria (Rita Blanco) and Jose (de Almeida) spend a night at a chateau converted into a hotel, a gift from their lawyer daughter, to encourage them to relax and enjoy life. No sooner does the waiter retire from their palatial suite than they push their plates of haute cuisine aside and open their tubs of cod stew.

How did his parents manage? ''Portuguese people are very pacific and accepting, they integrate well, they work hard and, also they don't complain,'' Alves says. ''They just say 'It's OK' if they are a bit put out.''

I sense it probably doesn't have quite the same meaning as ''she'll be right'', however it makes for the perfect employee, industrious and obliging, just like the lead characters in his film, prepared to work long hours, sometimes for nothing.

From the perspective of Maria and Jose's feisty daughter Paula (Barbara Cabrita), who has established a professional career and lives like any other young Parisian, they are obliging to a fault. Her parents, like the Spanish maids in the background in recent The Women on the 6th Floor, make everything work, and everything possible. However they don't see themselves as having such a critical role.

Alves feels his parents were not very assertive as a result of the political environment they came from. ''They are delivered from dictatorship and poverty, and could give to their children a better life, the most important thing.'' This is the point the film takes up and runs with.

According to the press notes, all Portuguese characters are played by Portuguese actors in this ensemble film, however they are virtually non-existent in France, which is something of a challenge for a French film. So a lot depended on the lead couple.

Lisbon-born de Almeida already had some international profile with roles in movies such as Desperado and Behind Enemy Lines and US television series like The Mentalist and The West Wing. Blanco is only really known in Portugal. She recently had a small role in Michael Haneke's Amour, also as a Portuguese concierge. ''She had, like, two sentences. A small, small role but he [Haneke] wanted her [and] I think she's brilliant.''

In Portugal, little cinema is made, most of it very serious fare. Television is, however, very popular, in particular locally made soap opera.

''Twenty years ago we used to watch Brazilian telenovelas but now we have our own productions in soap opera. Every channel has around four soap operas per day. It is a huge industry, but this is not the case with Portuguese cinema.''

Now that his film has been a big hit in Portugal, Alves hopes it will boost a new interest in cinema there - and that it will have appeal to immigrant audiences everywhere.

''In France, the Portuguese community is the third-largest immigrant group [from within Europe] with 4 million Portuguese and Portuguese descendants, meaning my generation and the following one.''

Whoever the audiences are in France, the comedy has quietly and firmly established itself at the box office there.

Now finally, I ask, what exactly is the significance of that beautiful song in the film? ''We are fatalist, more so than Spanish people. The song is typical fado. It's a prayer to Jesus to be allowed to die, it doesn't matter how, but in Portugal,'' Alves explains.

The Gilded Cage is now screening.

■ Jane Freebury travelled to Paris as a guest of Unifrance.