William Vitória’s MAR

The short film, Mar (2017), by the young Portuguese-Canadian filmmaker, William Vitória, is a brilliant and complex meditation on the meaning of love and the dark, monstrous primitive emotions we are all capable of acting upon.

Mar opens with a stunning view of the ocean and rocks along the coast of Portugal.  Gorgeously filmed, the short film packs in so many layers of meaning through sparse but revealing dialogue, and brief vignettes that entice us to follow the story of a couple, Xavier and Eduardo, who go on vacation to visit a childhood friend, living with his mother, in the coastal town of Peniche.

This short film (24 minutes and 34 seconds) is long in ideas, and leaves us wondering, shot after shot, what is the mystery or the secret that we can only suspect through hints or clues, such as the scene where Cristovão, the handsome host who is also the monster in the story, slides an octopus into a jar and seals it, adding it to his collection of other jars filled with captured marine life. In another scene, he cries to his mother pleading he doesn’t want to be a monster, yet she, who knows his secret, powerfully keeps him under control through her words and watchful eyes, or does she?

And we are never really sure why he is a monster: we suspect; we are taken, like voyeurs, inside the dark cave where the disturbing secret possibly hides; but the director insists viewers discover their own interpretations and meanings. As with everything else in this dense and carefully-crafted film, it’s possible to have multiple interpretations of the layers of meaning carefully veiled in suggestion, nuance, symbolism, suspense, a gaze, a carefully chosen piece of music, a word in the dialogue, a notebook of drawings, a cave. All these provide us with clues, and even when we think we have solved the mystery, can we really be sure that this is all there is to the secret?

Mar left me wanting to see more. The ending came abruptly, but the director had shown enough to leave me unsettled in my thinking, and wanting to backtrack to see the film again, just to make sure that I had understood. But the monster is within each of us, and so it’s up to each viewer to define the mystery.

I am looking forward to future films by this very talented young director who already delivers the promise of mature film-making at its best in Mar.

Photos by Emanuel Melo: Atlantic Ocean, Azores

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O MAR de William Vitória

A curta-metragem, “Mar” (2017), do jovem realizador luso-canadiano, William Vitória, é uma meditação complexa sobre o significado do amor e das emoções primitivas que cada um de nós tem dentro de si.

Mar” começa com a vista deslumbrante do mar e das rochas ao longo da costa portuguesa. O filme é curto, mas ao mesmo tempo longo nas suas camadas de significado, que se vai revelando por escasso diálogo e breve cenas, que, como vinhetas, nos seduzem a querer seguir a estória de um casal, Xavier e Eduardo, que foram de férias visitar um amigo de infância, o qual vive com a sua mãe numa aldeia costeira de Peniche.

Esta curta-metragem (duração de 24 minutos e 34 segundos) é longa em ideias e deixa-nos perguntando, cena após cena, qual será o mistério que estamos a presenciar, o qual nos custa descobrir, exceto pelas sugestões e pistas dadas no filme, como, por exemplo, quando vemos Cristovão deslizar um polvo para dentro de um jarro, e arrumá-lo junto a jarros que contêm outros animais marinhos igualmente aprisionados, colecionados por este bonito amigo anfitrião, que vem a ser o monstro no filme. Numa outra cena, ele implora à mãe, dizendo-lhe que não quer ser jamais um monstro. Sabemos que a sua mãe conhece a verdade do que o filho é, e que talvez ela o possa controlar, mas não temos a certeza.

Nunca sabemos ao certo porque é que ele é considerado um monstro, mas suspeitamos. Vemos dentro da gruta escura, onde o segredo está escondido, mas o realizador insiste que os seus espetadores descortinem as suas interpretações e significados por si próprios.

Como tudo neste filme, é possível termos várias interpretações das camadas de significados cuidadosamente escondidos pela sugestão, nuance, suspense, um olhar, uma peça de música bem escolhida, uma palavra no diálogo, um caderno com desenhos, uma gruta. Tudo isto nos dá indicações para sabermos o que poderá ser o segredo, e, mesmo quando nós, os espetadores, pensamos que já entendemos o segredo, depois de vermos o assustador mistério da gruta, ainda não conseguiremos ter a certeza do que será realmente o mistério.

“Mardeixou-me querendo ver mais. O fim chegou depressa demais. O realizador tinha-nos mostrado bastante, em pouco tempo, para deixar a minha mente inquieta, e a querer rever o filme, para certificar-me de que deveras tinha compreendido a mensagem. Talvez o monstro esteja dentro de cada um de nós, portanto, fica para cada um definir o mistério e o monstro “à sua moda”.

Fico ansioso para ver futuros trabalhos deste talentoso jovem realizador, que nos demonstra uma habilidade de construir filmes de qualidade superior, como já o fez com “Mar”.

Fotos de Emanuel Melo: Mar dos Açores

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Oka is more than a Cheese

If only I could return to the days when God was my guardian, when his fire blazed above me and guided me through the dark – to the days when I was in blossom and God was a hedge around me. 

 Heaven’s Coast, Mark Doty

I am sitting in my kitchen having breakfast. Sunlight shines on the paper box on the table. It’s only a cheese box but beautifully designed and suitable for putting little keepsakes in, the way an imaginative child might. The picture of L’ Abbaye d’Oka graces the lid, mustard coloured, advertising the 125th anniversary of this cheese, which belongs, no longer to the monks who first made it, but to Quebec’s Agropur company .

Inside the box is a wrapped small wheel of cheese which I can now buy at big chain supermarkets like Loblaws or FreshCo. I slice a thick wedge and lay it on top of my warm toast; I put it in my mouth, tasting the tangy semi-soft cheese, savouring each mouthful, followed by a sip of café au lait from my favourite blue and white bowl, reminiscent of the colour of azulejos.

But the box containing the wheel of cheese is much more than a disposal, biodegradable item to place in my recycling bin. The mass produced box, showing an abbey which no longer exists, is a tangible sacramental which awakens my memory of the Abbaye Cistercienne d’Oka, known in the beginning of its foundation as La Trappe of Oka or the Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac; and which we, who went there, simply called Oka.

Throughout most of my adult life I had journeyed to Oka, the home of French Trappist monks whose founders had come from the Abbaye de Bellefontaine, in France, in 1881. There I made many retreats over the years until the monks sold the monastery and moved to a more remote part of Quebec.

The first time I went to Oka was in the late 1970’s with Joy, Janet, and Vladimir, the group of friends who introduced me to the Cistercian monastic life close to the Ontario-Quebec border. The drive along the Trans-Canada highway 401 east of Toronto became highway 40 as we entered Quebec towards the easy-to-miss exit to the small town of Hudson from where we took a small ferry across the Ottawa River and into the small town of Oka. The monastery was only a few miles up the road.

It was Thanksgiving weekend and the colours on the trees were vibrant reds and yellows; and the moment I saw the abbey, I was like a joyful child approaching Disneyland. For me, discovering the monks was a profound connection to a spiritual world I had imagined and craved for but, until then, had only read about, especially through the writings of Thomas Merton, the most prolific and influential monk-writer of our times. I had been inspired by his autobiographical The Seven Storey Mountain, and had already devoured some of his other  books before I set foot in the monastery: Contemplative Prayer, The Silent Life, The Wisdom of the Desert, Contemplation in a Word of Action.

In those days, Oka cheese was served in abundance at the guest-house and I would eat big slices of it with my toast and coffee in the morning, but the cheese was still available at lunch and dinner, so guests could have cheese all day long.

After that first visit, I returned many times over the decades, not because of the cheese but because at Oka I had found a spiritual home. It has been a place where I had been touched by grace.

I often went alone, seeking the solitude and peace I so desired (and still do), walked the fields and the nearby forest and sometimes met with Father Benedict, who would take me to the monks’ private fields and orchards, where he would be gracious to me with his words of wisdom and holy guidance. I would meet with him each time I visited and, every time, his presence alone filled me with healing.

I would also get up in the darkness of night and quietly make my way to be with the monks in the dark womb of the church, lit only by candlelight, for four am Vigils; I followed their ancient monastic timetable of prayer throughout the day, listened to the bell announcing Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers. It’s a daily monastic rhythm that ends with Compline, in the semi-dark church at nightfall, with the chanting of the Salve Regina, still in Latin, and the blessing of the Abbott as the monks, double-filed, processed past him with a bow and then disappeared into their private enclosure while the retreatants went back to the guest house for the Grand Silence and sleep.

Other times, I returned to Oka with a friend. When we arrived at the abbey, the rule of silence prevailed, and we ceased to talk to each other, except in sign language during meals or happenstance meetings along a corridor, when our eyes did most of the talking; and if we needed to relay a more complex message, we would slide little notes to each other under our doors.

With Alan (how young we were that summer, and how was I to know then that I would lose my best friend by his early 30’s), we joined the monks in the fields and picked strawberries and vegetables. Once, the monks left us alone to pick weeds in their private cloister. There was such joy in our youth, barely in our twenties and in love with the monastic way but, strangely, never enough to want to join. The lure of the world was too strong, and our visits to the monastery were only breaks from everyday life and a time to rejuvenate the soul.

Later, with Jim, during my university years, we learned of John Lennon’s death on our way back to civilization, as no news of the outside world had come to break the silence and peace of our retreat during the cold early December of 1980.

And with Richard, attending the funeral of a monk, Père Denis Cyr, who laid on top of a simple wooden catafalque in the nave of the church between the choir-stalls, embodying peace. His brother monks passed by him during the Offices of the day, touched him with their fingers as they glided by to their seats, kept vigil with him, and went on with their liturgical life without a hint of sadness. At Compline, a young monk played classical guitar to the chanting of the Salve Regina while the light of a candle in front of the statue of the Virgin flickered. The following morning, Le Dernier Adieu, we processed to the cemetery behind the church and there was much peace as we later went back to the routine of the monastic day.

Over the years, whenever I experienced a spiritual crisis or a moment of loss, like when my father died, I would take the train to Montreal and then a commuter train to Deux-Montagnes, ending in a long taxi ride to the guest house entrance. It may seem like a very cumbersome way to get there, but it was worth it. Once I arrived, I always felt safe, at home.

Interestingly enough, in the early 1980’s, it was easier to travel to Oka. I could take a bus from Montreal’s Henri-Bourassa Metro station that would stop along the way in small towns like Ste-Dorothée, St-Eustache, St-Joseph du Lac, and be dropped off in front of the abbey’s gate. But then bus service stopped and, coincidentally, so did my visits for a while.

When I finally returned, in the 2000’s, the church and the guest house had been renovated but still felt like a welcoming haven for my weary soul. I continued to visit more frequently until the last time, in 2007. By then I already knew that the monks would be leaving soon for their new monastery in Saint Jean de Matha. The reasons for their move had to do with the decline in the size of the monks’ population, and also because the region of Oka had become more urban over the years, disturbing the silence and solitude needed for their monastic life.

On that last visit, on the last day of the retreat, November 1, Feast of All Saints, Fr. Bruno invited me to participate in the celebration of the Mass by asking me to carry the chalice in procession during the offertory. I walked up the nave, passing all the monks in their choir stalls with trembling reverence, honoured for being made to feel one of them for a few moments. I remained with the monks around the altar facing the congregation until the end of Mass. Afterwards, I thanked Fr. Bruno for such a gift. “You can be a little brother for a while,” he said with a smile that made me feel that I belonged to this community of monks I had known for so many years.

Oka is where I walked with God and where I felt God’s embrace. It’s were some of my closest friends shared that walk of grace with me and, at the end of each visit, when it was time for me to go, I would sit in the silence of the church to say goodbye to God, and feel such a pull, like a magnet, enticing me to stay until the taxi arrived to take me away.

I still eat Oka cheese very often and, sometimes, the taste of it in my mouth brings back the comfort of the silent presence of God I experienced at Oka. It’s a silence I miss, now that it’s gone.

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Visiting My Self in the Museu da Emigração Açoriana

It’s been two years since I visited the Museu da Emigração Açoriana in the town of Ribeira Grande, on the island of São Miguel, in the Azores. But I haven’t forgotten how that visit made me feel and what emotions it evoked for me as I reflected on my own journey of immigration.

I was there accompanied by a busload of participants from the 26th Colóquio da Lusofonia held in Lomba da Maia. The group consisted of diverse people interested in the literature and culture of the Azores, some for whom Portuguese was not their first language. But because of their love for the Azores, they have become champions and promoters of the culture, and seem to identify as strongly with the islands as much as those who were born there. Often, the discovery of an ancestor from the islands is enough to connect them to their heritage. Others came from mainland Portugal, and some from as far away as Brazil and East Timor. Finally, there were local writers, teachers, and poets who live on the islands.

Each of us, I assumed, had a different experience and relationship with the world of immigration, either because we had been immigrants ourselves or were touched by the lives of others: families and friends who had left the islands for other places.

It had already been a long day of touring, with stops at a tea plantation (Chá Formoso), and a liqueur factory (Mulher do Capote), when we arrived at the immigration museum, where a reception that included local delicacies and drink awaited us. That day, I was seeing the island from the perspective of an insider who had become an outsider after I left at the age of nine for Canada.

Although most of the group continued to be tourists walking about the museum, looking with curiosity at display cases and artifacts, I stopped feeling like a tourist and instead found myself to be a living artifact escaped from the glass case depicting the immigrant life of those who went to Canada.

I was surprised to see under the glass cover a photograph of someone I knew: Senhor António Tabico, a prominent Luso-Torontonian who organized Romarias from Toronto to São Miguel each year to participate in the ancient island tradition of men wandering the island in holy pilgrimage during Lent. He also owned an Azorean restaurant in Toronto, O Tabico, where my family gathered for celebrations over the years, including my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Although he passed away in 2013, I can still hear his deep voice and laughter and good natured disposition when he would come over to our table to greet my father, a friend of his, patting him on the back and recalling shared memories.

I remembered this and more as I leaned over the glass cover to witness the preservation of my living history. I was aware of the others in the room looking at the display, curious about what they saw, but Senhor Tabico was just another photo to them, as were also the hundreds of other immigrants who were encased in photographs showing them leaving for the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world. Senhor Tabico’s photograph, however, was the link to my life in Canada, beyond the glass case, a part of my living history.

I was also captivated by photographs of the history of SATA airplanes because I had most assuredly boarded one of these early models when I had left the island as a little boy. I could almost see myself again inside the tiny airplane that had taken us from our island to the island of Santa Maria before boarding the large jet that took us across the ocean to Canada.

I saw a barrel-container sent from someone in the United States to family back home and it reminded me of the container we once received full of clothes, toys, and canned peaches, sent by my father, who was already in Canada. The excitement and awed mystery I felt in seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting these foreign treasures made tangible for me the  world where my father and other family members had already gone to live.

Old letters, passports, and other mementos and artifacts, lovingly preserved in this museum, painfully and profoundly disturbed my sense of belonging and living in the real world rather than there, enclosed and preserved as a long ago participant in the immigration experience of my people.

I am sure my feelings were not that unique and that anyone else who has experienced immigration would feel the same, if they saw their lives’ history encased in glass.

I walked out of the museum feeling a deep void inside myself and a sadness, too, as if I had just visited a self I used to be but who died a long time ago. I’d rather forget those artifacts and those photographs documenting the lives of people like me; documenting me! Yet these images haunt my present-time and remind me that I will always carry with me the knowledge of where I came from and how I was made to leave my place of origin in order to have a better life elsewhere in the world.

We continue to live at a time of great immigration, which should not come as a big surprise, because human history has always been one of constant immigration. Perhaps the history of Azorean immigration, mostly to escape poverty and, at one time, even during my youth, the colonial wars before the revolution of 25 de Abril, is mild compared to the heart wrenching stories of the lives of the current waves of immigrants who are fleeing war-torn countries and seeking asylum in the USA, Canada, and other parts of the world. How can I compare my experience of feeling torn apart as a child, when I left the island I called home, to the reality of thousands upon thousands of Syrian children, for example, who have witnessed the destruction and horrors of war in ways that I never did?

I think about these children when I see them on the television news and I wonder how they will survive and reimagine themselves in their new world of freedom. I wonder if, in the eyes of a child, the horror of being torn apart and having to leave your childhood home is, at the core, just as horrific to the psyche, regardless of the incidentals that tore you apart, be it poverty or the destruction caused by war.

And how does the memory of home, your first home in the world, shape your future life?

I recently saw Our Man in Tehran, a documentary by The New York Times correspondent Thomas Erdbrink about modern day Iran. One of the segments shows a teenage girl of Iranian background, but born in the USA, who had gone to Iran to visit remaining family. She felt immediately at home in Iran and would  had gladly given up her North American freedoms for the chance to live in a place that haunted her dreams.

Her mother and sisters could not understand her irrational desire of wanting to go back to the place they had fled from persecution and war. But she found that the geographical location was somehow embedded in her DNA as something stronger, deeper, beyond the chaos of war and politics: a connection with the undefiled ancient beauty of her culture and her place in it.

Perhaps the desire to go back home is nothing more than an attempt to satisfy the illusion born out of  that old wicked saudade the Portuguese claim as uniquely theirs. But the Portuguese, I have come to realize, aren’t the only ones who feel the longing and absence for something lost. There are words in different languages that also capture the essence of saudade.  Ultimately, everyone who longs to return to their home of origin, even when the safety of that home is no longer there, is a victim of saudade. I say victim, because saudade can deceive us into reinventing a past that is all glory and easily forgets the suffering experienced.

And yet, we do need a little of saudade to keep us emotionally sane. You can continue to sift through memories and hold on to what was good, even as you forge ahead into a new life. This, I think, we all share, all of us who have experienced immigration as part of the human journey on this planet.

The Museu da Emigração Açoriana exposed me to old wounds but also provided me with healing comfort, weaving the past to the present and beyond, with the assurance that immigrants always carry on.

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A Walk Through the York Regional Forest

About a 45-minute drive northeast of Toronto you will be able to experience the York Regional Forest’s vast network of meandering trails and streams. You can go there for long walks, horseback riding, mountain biking, snowmobiling and, above all, rest and solitude.

It is easy to lose yourself in the vast maze of trails that can take you far and away, allowing your mind to wonder, lost in the beauty of tall trees and plant life surrounding you.

Getting lost on these beautiful nature trails is good for the soul, especially if you surrender to the journey and let go of the need for mobile apps/maps to guide you. Simply trust that you will get to where you need to go and eventually you will return to where you need to be.

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A Memory of Yellow

Summer has officially ended in Toronto, but the summer-long yellow flowers at Rosetta McClain Gardens remain, stubbornly clinging to their beauty in exaggerated movement and ebbing life, ignoring the signs in the cooler air that politely hint to them that it’s time to let go.

I feel a strange longing while gazing at these yellow flowers and, for a moment, I am curious about my persistent fascination with their colour of yellow. What does yellow represent to me? The reason eludes me, but I need to know, and intuition leads me to search for it through photographs taken in previous visits to the Azores around this time of the year. And sure enough, there they are:  flores amarelas.

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Reading in Rosetta McClain Gardens

To be able to read in a garden is a joy. I wish I could be more like the Reader in my photograph, absorbed in the beauty of words while surrounded by the beauty of flowers, waterfall and stone.

Whenever I try to read in Rosetta, or in any other garden for that matter, I find the sights and sounds of nature around me so wonderfully distracting that I can’t focus on the words on the page. So I surrender and read the flowers and the trees and the view instead.

I wonder what my Reader is reading. If I could only let the flowers just be background and not demand my attention, I would sit in the garden and lose myself in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a novel just as beautiful and intense as the flowers.

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