Berlinale 2023 Review: A Death Brings a Spark of Life in Susana Nobre’s “Cidade Rabat”

The quote “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” comes to mind as Helena (Raquel Castro) looks over receipts during her lunch in “Cidade Rabat,” taking no time off like her crew does. The work she does is hardly for her own benefit as a production manager on a film, making sure that a schedule is laid out for her director, who will inevitably want even more time than what the budget will allow, and there’s no time to relax after a long day on the job, having to resolve the countless loose ends that have been left by her mother’s recent death and left in the unfortunate position of pushing off grieving a loved one while grieving for herself as it becomes apparent she’s reached a dead end in life, a minor tragedy that writer/director Susana Nobre can’t help but find the humor in when there’s no other way to look at it.

“Cidade Rabat” finds Helena in a nostalgic mood when it opens, recalling in a voiceover off-screen vivid details about the neighbors in the building she grew up in, but once she appears in front of the camera, she largely keeps to herself, outfitted in an olive overcoat that looks like it’s as effective as a shield from engaging with other people as it is as a windbreaker. If she cherishes these memories of a more innocent time, it’s harsh to discover that her mother doesn’t seem to have much use for them in her dying days, preemptively tearing up photos after acknowledging who’s in them as if she’s done with them. Helena already doesn’t have much family of her own – her 12-year-old daughter Maria is distant, due to a divorce – and while she doesn’t let on too much, her mother’s death clearly stirs something inside her when waiting in line at the bank now inspires thoughts about what else she’s waiting on in her life.

Nobre’s gently mischievous character study requires patience as well when Helena can be seen drifting through life without much to interrupt the monotony, but loosens up as its heroine does, observing her letting go of responsibility to get into the groove to find a life of renewed purpose. A stillness throughout in the framing and the relative quiet amplifies any action and the small strides are made to feel like big ones as Helena comes to have an understanding of what she wants her next steps to be. Castro strikes exactly the right temperament as the mild-mannered Helena to express any small but meaningful epiphanies and there’s a lively energy from the collaboration between costume designer Tânia Franco, production designer Claudie Lopes Costa and cinematographer Paulo Menezes that allows light and color to infiltrate a dark period in Helena’s life, provocatively confusing the situation when days don’t look much different than they normally do suggesting she should carry on as normal. When “Cidade Rabat” celebrates getting out of habit at every turn, it’s only fitting that it feels like it’s breaking a few of its own as well.

“Cidade Rabat” will screen at Berlinale on February 20th at 3 pm at the Delphi Filmpalast, February 24th at 10:30 pm at Zoo Palast 5 and February 25th at 8 pm at the Werkstattkino@silent green.

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