Credit: FIDMarseille
by Joshua Peinado Featured Film

The Flame of a Candle — André Gil Mata [FIDMarseille ’24 Review]

July 10, 2024

The Flame of a Candle presents the account of three characters: Alzira (Eva Ras), her maid Beatriz (Márcia Breia), and their home. Director André Gil Mata speaks of the film as a biographical account of his grandmother and the tucked-away house where he spent his childhood with her and various other relatives, including his grandmother’s maid, whom he saw as a maternal figure. The film spans decades, weaving portraits of a family through generations, the camera never leaving their house or garden. The film introduces Alzira and Beatriz in old age, going about daily routines slowly as the camera watches patiently, as if biding time. Over the course of the two-hour film, a few events play out across an intimate history — a proposal, illness, and gatherings of children mark some of the film’s only speaking sections — the audience sees as Alzira comes of age and quietly seems to wither away as a prisoner of the home. At the same time, Beatriz, confined to her duties, suffers a double fate as both a woman of the household and a domestic servant.

Time plays out as fluidly as Mata’s camera movements, helped along by veteran Akerman editor Claire Atherton, whose sense for duration allows the film to build up an incredible moving current alongside its ambiguous narrative runs. As the film goes on, repetition becomes a key theme — the same chores performed over and over, the same hallways and rooms occupied by the same bodies. Most striking of these occurrences is a long-take in the garden that Mata returns to four times throughout the film. A distant church is framed by the stone walls and cherry blossoms that hide the garden from the outside world, and the camera slowly pans along the branches of the tree to the ground, taking note of a multitude of flowers along its way. The camera traces and swivels around a moss-covered log, following a path of ferns past a sleeping dog to its final position watching over a door that nobody enters. Some change occurs in the garden’s setting with the seasons’ change, but the movement is choreographed similarly each time. Cherry blossoms fade and branches grow bare. At times, the church seems busy from a distance, and at others eerily quiet. The dog appears perpetually chained to its house, and every porch-sighting thereafter brings a new visitor or finally signals a departure.

Though the film extrapolates on Mata’s view of devotion to the home life as cyclical, the garden reinforces that though time passes, little changes for the house, whose own memories seem to dictate the film more than any individual characters’. In a final sequence, when Alzira goes to sleep and the camera floats through the darkened halls like a ghost, the audience is privy to reunions of faces long lost to time. Phantoms from the past act as statues, modeling the behaviors of their lives: reading the newspaper, performing chores, sitting down for a meal. Even in their passing, they remain stuck in their rituals, with Alzira left to remember their domesticity.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024 — Dispatch 3.