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Originally published Thursday, December 2, 2010 at 3:08 PM

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Movie review

'The Portuguese Nun': An unconventional, engrossing odyssey of self-discovery

"The Portuguese Nun" is Eugène Green's highly formalized, stylistically daring French/Portuguese drama about a young actress's quest for purpose while shooting a film in Lisbon.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'The Portuguese Nun,' with Leonor Baldaque, Francisco Mozos, Adrien Michaux, Ana Moreira. Written and directed by Eugène Green. 127 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. In Portuguese and French with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

Shortly after arriving in Lisbon for a film shoot, a French actress named Julie (Leonor Baldaque) describes the production to a makeup artist. It's an art film with only two characters, adapted from "Letters from a Portuguese Nun," a 1669 novel consisting of five affectionate missives from a nun to her lover, a Portuguese army officer.

"It's unconventional," says Julie, who'll be playing the nun without speaking any dialogue on-screen.

"Boring, you mean," responds the makeup artist, echoing the earlier sentiments of a hotel clerk who dismisses French films as being only "for intellectuals."

It's a droll, tongue-in-cheek exchange in a film that's well aware of its own unconventional appeal to high-minded cinephiles. As written and directed by American-born French director Eugène Green, "The Portuguese Nun" is a confident throwback to the kind of finely calibrated formalism that emerged in European (especially French and Italian) films in the 1950s and '60s.

Using slow, panoramic camera pans to caress the cityscapes of Lisbon, and frequent scenes in which the actors converse directly to the camera (especially Baldaque, with her huge, hypnotic eyes and inscrutable expressions), Green reveals Julie to be somewhat adrift yet eager to find a sense of purpose.

What may seem "boring" to some is, upon closer inspection, an engrossing and richly rewarding odyssey of self-discovery and spiritual enrichment. Julie will be in Lisbon (her mother's birthplace) only for a brief time, but her journey includes several pivotal encounters, most notably with a young, soon-to-be-orphaned boy named Vasco (Francisco Mozos) and a real Portuguese nun (Ana Moreira), who gently steers Julie toward a life-changing epiphany.

Green's formalism extends to his dialogue, stripped bare and delivered with crisp, formal enunciation. It's all part of a concise and effective strategy, conspicuously and sometimes humorously eccentric (and featuring Green himself as director of the film-within-a film) but always accessible. Indeed, it's not difficult to imagine "The Portuguese Nun" remade as a Hollywood quest-for-love tear-jerker with Sandra Bullock as Julie.

Green's film may be light years from the mainstream, but there's a charming heart beating within its unconventional artistry.

Jeff Shannon:

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