It’s been five years since Djon Africa, the last feature from co-directors João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis. That film — about a Cape Verdean man in Portugal who decides to return to his birthplace in search of the father who left him years ago — in certain respects, was a reversal of the trajectory taken by Miller Guerra and Reis’ new one. Légua is about the bonds of family, biological and chosen, and the steadfast refusal to leave one’s home behind, even when staying is no longer a viable option. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Ana (Carla Maciel), a wife and mother in her late 40s, and her much older friend, Emilia (Fátima Soares), the head housekeeper at a Portuguese manor house. The owners of the house never come around, but Emilia is almost fanatically devoted to keeping the place in perfect condition, should they ever deign to appear. This inflexibility becomes a problem once Emilia is diagnosed with advanced cancer, and Ana feels compelled to care for her friend during her protracted decline.
The primary conflict in Légua has to do with Ana’s sense of duty. It’s implied that Emilia helped Ana at a particularly low point in her life, and she feels obligated to return the favor. This is complicated by the fact that Ana’s husband Vitor (Paolo Calatré) lives and works in France, and very much wants her to join him; she refuses, because she must care for Emilia. This creates tension not only in the marriage but in Ana’s relationship with her college-age daughter, Mónica (Vitória Nogueira de Silva), who, not without reason, feels her mother is choosing an outsider over her own family.
In its early moments, Légua resembles Carla Simón’s Golden Bear winner Alcarràs, observing the activities of numerous people in a rural setting and allowing the specifics of their relationships to gradually become apparent. But where Simón’s film was about family standing together at all costs, Légua is about dissolution and loss. At the end of the first third of the film, we see a celebration for Ana’s birthday, a scene filled with family and friends. In time, though, Ana’s entire world is reduced to Emilia, someone who was an irascible character even at the best of times. Ana steals private moments — to lay out in the sun or listen to pop radio, for instance — but in the end everything comes back to the grueling, painful process of tending to a dying loved one, an experience Miller Guerra and Reis depict with great acuity.
In a rather unexpected manner, Légua doesn’t end so much as it peters out — something that could well be another thematic expression of the complicated timeframe of end-of-life care, the way illness produces its own disconnected affective bubble. But what is clear at the film’s conclusion is that all those who counted on Emilia — her employers as well as her own family — have completely forgotten about her. Ana refuses to follow suit, making Légua an admirably knotty depiction of the ethics of care, the refusal to let a fellow human being die alone.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.