Small Town: childhood memories of lost innocence in this Golden Bear-winning short

On the evidence of this hazy, surreal gem, Diogo Costa Amarante is a director to watch.

Laurence Boyce

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Small Town (Cidade Pequena, Diogo Costa Amarante, 2017)

Small Town (Cidade Pequena, Diogo Costa Amarante, 2017)

Diogo Costa Amarante’s Portuguese short Small Town (Cidade Pequena) is suffused with the hazy memories of childhood. The film, which won 2017’s Berlinale Golden Bear for Best Short Film, sits on the cusp of reality and imagination as it explores the realm in which the new awareness of death begins to destroy innocence.

The film begins with images of a young boy called Frederico (Frederico Costa Amarante, the director’s nephew), interspersed with pastoral imagery of countryside life. This idyllic atmosphere is punctured by a brief shot of a snake whose head explodes, which breaks the comforting spell of serenity. This is echoed later on when, during a shot of a swimming pool accompanied by a voiceover narration, delivered by the director himself, speaking of the time when Fredrico learned about death at school, one of the swimmers’ heads explodes. But these moments are more surreal than shocking, and reflect the imagination of a child, adding his own morbid intimations to a previously innocent world.

This surreal tone continues while Federico sleeps in the back of a car. Outside in a sun-drenched field, a woman, who we presume to be his mother, drinks with two policemen. As the 80s Europop song Words plays over the car radio, the two men embrace and sway slowly in the sunlight. The moment has both an air of the sexual and childlike innocence about it, once again evoking the staccato memories of childhood. Given that the cast is drawn from Amarante’s immediate family, the film itself also plays with perception, existing somewhere between fiction and documentary.

Eschewing narrative for mood and using a series of relatively long takes, Small Town is redolent of the work of Michelangelo Antonioni – appropriately enough given that the legendary Italian director is himself a multiple-winner of the Golden Bear. One hopes that Frederico will not grow up to become a victim of the ennui that oppresses many of Antonioni’s adult characters.

Small Town shows that Amarante is a director to watch, delivering on the promise of his earlier shorts such as The White Rose (As Rosas Blancas, 2014) – which was also warmly received on the festival circuit. It also another example of the current strength of Portuguese short-form cinema. Amarante’s contemporaries Gabriel Abrantes and João Salaviza – whose films also screened in the Berlinale Shorts competition – show a similar willingness to play with both genre and perceptions.

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