It was the title that spurred me to pick up Night Train to Lisbon (2013) at my local library.
Not for me Iron Man 3, Kuch Kuch Hota Hain, Chennai Express, Terminator 27, Dabbang 25 or Avengers 65. No, no, no, can’t take that drivel no more!
Night Train to Lisbon promised adventure, thrill and more than a hint of intrigue.
Danish director Bille August directed the film based on Pascal Mercier’s eponymous novel.
Problem with Indian Films
The main reason I gravitate toward non-Indian films like Night Train to Lisbon is that most of our movies are set on a small canvas.
Or as I like to say, Indian movies are invariably done in portrait mode.
Puny talents make monkeys of themselves to the accompaniment of ear-splitting noise over some silly, soppy romance in Chennai, Vijayawda, Bhatinda or Pune; or an upright ‘Singham’ cop takes on the corrupt, plundering elements in town; or, worse, a well-heeled NRI returns to India to engage in some bizarre antics that makes me cringe. Friday after Friday, a thousand variants of this small-canvas, portrait mode drivel plays out on screens in India and distant shores (to pander to the diaspora).
Au contraire, classy, memorable movies almost always come in landscape mode.
Individuals play their parts against the backdrop of events that are larger than themselves.
Casablanca was set against at the backdrop of WW II, Godfather was more than the story of a single crime family, the charm of Italian film Life is Beautiful owes to its scaffolding of Nazi brutality and the concentration camp, Django has the terrible injustices of slavery as a prop and in Inglourious Basterds we have the nasty Nazis again.
There are so many pivotal moments in Indian history, near and distant, against which any number of stories could be woven into fine celluloid yarn. To name a few, the Emergency (1975-77), massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, Naxalite movement in West Bengal, displacement of farmers by mega projects, Bangladesh liberation war, Sri Lankan fiasco, endless Kashmir violence, Garib Hatao, Ayodhya, Sanjay Gandhi’s forced sterilization program, tacit alliance of Christians and Muslims (against Hindus) and conflicted allegiance of Indian Muslims.
But we seldom encounter Indian films juxtaposed against key events in our present or past. Like Ayn Rand’s uber-heroes who achieve the impossible, heroes in Indian films stand tall, towering in a freakish vacuum.
Romance in a Time of Danger
The beauty of Night Train to Lisbon is that it alternates between the present calm times (the film was made in 2013) and a disturbing phase in Portugal’s history – the decades-long dictatorship of Antonio Salazar that ended four years after his death in 1970.
The movie begins on a rainy morning in Berne, Switzerland where a middle-aged teacher Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) notices a young woman in a red jacket preparing to leap off a bridge.
Raimund saves the girl, but she soon vanishes leaving behind a red jacket with a small book in it.
The philosophical book by Amadeu do Prado is the trigger for Raimund to take the night train to Lisbon.
And thus begins our journey into a perilous time when countless dissenting Portuguese voices and lives were crushed by the regime’s merciless butchers and flung into prison dungeons to rot there till the Carnation Revolution freed them.
Romance clashes with revolutionary fervor and adultery in the past and gently touches Raimund’s quest for Prado in present-day Lisbon.
Great beauty and adultery are seldom apart for long, right?
Under Bille August’s competent direction, the movie neatly alternates between the past, present and Prado’s reflections on life (from the book).
British actor Jeremy Irons, who plays Raimund, is a giant among actors. Winner of the Oscar, Golden Globe and several other honors, Irons is impeccable in Night Train to Lisbon. I plan on watching Irons’ other films including his best known work Reveral of Fortune.
Mélanie Laurent (who plays Estefania, the lover of both Prado and his dear friend Jorge) is a stunningly beautiful woman and a remarkable talent (Unfortunately, I have only seen her in short roles in Inglourious Basterds and this film).
The rest of the cast including Jack Huston (in the role of Prado), Christopher Lee as the older Father Bartolomeu, and Martina Gedeck as the optometrist are solid. As I’ve long argued, there are no bad actors. Only bad directors!
If you’re the sort to delight in offbeat, lesser known quality films, you’ll be pleased with Night Train to Lisbon. The DVD is available at Netflix and most U.S. public libraries.
Just don’t expect Raimund to save the world or find a cure for cancer in 110-minutes.