Arts Film Review Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: Parque Mayer dir. António-Pedro Vasconcelos

Art and politics collide in this moving tribute to the titular Portuguese amusement park.

For most Singaporeans, Portuguese history and culture are likely to be little known subjects at the back of our minds. But with António-Pedro Vasconcelos’ Parque Mayer, one is left intrigued and compelled to find out more, thanks to the stirring performances and tale of revolution via art, as told through one of Portugal’s most renowned amusement parks.

Right from the film’s opening chase scene, we already get the sense that we’ve been transported to the past, not only being shot on film, but even down to the set, and how it immediately situates us in a lively environment, the atmosphere rife with possibility. The film doesn’t waste any time establishing its political overtones, with a playwright arrested and incarcerated over his supposedly anti-establishment leanings, against the fascist dictatorship of Oliveira Salazar and his police.

Left without a partner, co-playwright Mario Pintor (Francisco Froes) is left to finish the script for Parque Mayer’s new revue show by himself, while also combatting the government’s strict censorship laws. As the theatre rehearses and prepares for the show’s opening, we’re quickly introduced to a colourful cast of characters, most significantly, young ingenue Deolinda (Daniela Melchior) hoping to catch her big break, and famous actor and playboy Eduardo (Diogo Morgado).

Written by Tiago Santos, what makes Parque Mayer such a success is the rollercoaster of emotions it takes us through over the course of the show. As much as one can predict the entire film will end with a show-within-a-show, the journey to get there is filled with saucy twists and detours that keep you guessing how the fates of these characters will turn out, reflecting the fear and uncertainty under fascist rule.

Deolinda, for example, is moonlighting on the side to financially support her abusive boyfriend; while Mario’s romantic endeavours become the focus of his character arc, taking him through one ordeal after another that drives him to go from writing for entertainment, to writing with a political purpose. It can be all too easy to get lost in these side plots, but Parque Mayer manages to tie them all back together in a way that drives the main plot forward, and facilitates character growth and development.

This is in part also thanks to the brilliant performances from the cast. As our protagonist, Francisco Froes, as Mario begins as a tortured artist just trying to get by, frustrated by the restrictions and limitations on his work. But over time, we see his verve for life begin to emerge as he takes more risks, goes for what he wants, and gets it. He easily becomes a character we root for, flawed but understandable, and always knowing the right words to say. Froes shares a very strong chemistry with Daniela Melchior as Deolinda, their friendship and mutual support a joy to watch onscreen. Melchior captures Deolinda’s innocence and spunk; with her presence throughout the show is a source of light and hope, standing strong in spite of the struggles she faces. And with Diogo Morgado, he captures Eduardo’s limitless libido, his suave confidence, and makes him a prick of a character one loves-to-hate.

For its sunny premise, Parque Mayer broaches some surprisingly dark territory, and showcases how much suffering goes on underneath the veneer of peace. But through the use of art as subversion, Parque Mayer recalls and celebrates the Portuguese tradition of satirical revues, and their key role in political resistance against fascism. In the glorious final sequence, as the revue finally makes its premiere, there is a heady mix of bittersweet joy and amazement, the revue doing exactly what it sets out to as it basically points a giant middle finger at censorship and fascism, a blaze of glory that fills us with pride at the victory of the people. While the theatres of the real Parque Mayer today have fallen into disrepair, it is with films like these that keep their former glory alive in our collective imagination, and that art is essential.

The 2021 European Union Film Festival runs from 6th to 23rd May 2021. Tickets and more information available here

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