Movies

A Dança dos Paroxismos (The Dance of the Paroxysms) – Jorge Brum do Canto (1929)

For many years, portuguese cinema has been mostly known for its comedies. A lesser known fact is that one of the oldest in the industry was a fantasy film released in 1929: The Dance of the Paroxysms. This little gem released at the end of the silent era comes from a more experimental time for portuguese filmmakers.

The Dance of the Paroxysms is based on the poem Les Elfes, from Leconte de Lisle. The poem is itself based on a norse legend. Its plot centers around Gonthramm, a knight who searched in vain for the Holy Grail. He now wants to return home in order to get back to Galeswinthe, his wife. However, he will first need to pass through the Realm of the Sylphs, having to face spirits that want to imprison him there.

Even though Portugal has a vast amount of myths, this film mostly takes inspiration from abroad. That is easily recognizable by the names, taken from historical records of royalty that lived in a territory formerly known as Austrasia (which was made up of various regions that are now part of Belgium, France, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany). The film never tells us Gonthramm’s country, preferring to stay vague, which allows it to truly play like a fairy tale.

The director Jorge Brum do Canto was only 18 years old when Dance of the Paroxysms was made. Even though this was a cheap production, it holds up in many ways due to its mythical perspective. Through slow fades and the way the film stays so much in Gonthramm’s mind, this experience almost plays like a dream.

By the time Brum do Canto was directing this film, he already had 2 years of experience as a film critic. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that The Dance of the Paroxysms seems to be heavily influenced by German Expressionism. During the opening cards we should get a good idea of what to expect, as the young film director acknowledges being inspired by Marcel L’Herbier, a film director who lead French expressionism in cinema. This little film plays like a smaller scale L’Herbier film, not being able to replicate the elaborate sets found in L’Herbier’s films, but making up for it by creating a similar mood. Canto does try to make his film feel grander, using miniatures.

Expressionism’s focus was in externalizing feeling and visualizing dreams. The miniatures might ring fake but what mattered most for the film to work was the mood. By making us feel the desperation in Gonthramm’s journey, we were able to empathize with his character. By empathizing with him, we were able to believe in the film.

There is a clear comprehension of the power editing can have. Even though Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of editing were probably not common knowledge in filmmaking at the time, Jorge Brum de Canto seems to apply many of those ideas. At such a ripe age, he had a strong understanding of how cinematic language could make certain events have the biggest impact. Even with all the limitations of portuguese cinema of 1920s, Jorge Brum de Canto showed that Portugal could adapt ambitious stories and turn dreams into reality. All it took was the will to imagine.

Dance of the Paroxysms was a challenge for future Portuguese filmmakers. Even if flawed, it was a vision of what Portuguese cinema could become. However, the film only had a single screening in November 1930, being unavailable for half a century before being screened once again in October 27th of 1984. This was probably due to the director not being completely happy with his work, as it didn’t have a commercial release by his own request.

Paroxysms ended up not having much of an impact on the Portuguese film industry, probably due to it having become almost unavailable. It’s greatest impact lies in having launched young Brum do Canto’s career. Not only did he secure a position as one of the country’s film pioneers, but he would go on to have a prosperous career directing documentaries and feature-length films.

Unfortunately, the film hasn’t received a formal home media release. However, it’s easily accessible online.

Born in 1995 and with a degree in Communication Studies, Adriano works as a cameraman and video editor. Rants about movies and television shows on the YouTube channel Cabo Cinético and has worked on numerous short-films. Has also written articles for Espalha-Factos and Sem Bilhete.

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