Portugal/Brazil/Ireland/Spain 1999

Reviewed by Philip Kemp


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Lisbon, the present. Cathy Coelho, an Irish woman living in Lisbon and happily married to a Portuguese lawyer Pedro, is mugged in the street by Daniel, a young junkie. He's caught, but she insists that he's released and gives him money. Daniel's mother, in despair over her son, joins a cult. At the railway station an elderly man distractedly searches for his young granddaughter who has run away; elsewhere the child roams the streets. Pedro, who unknown to Cathy is a compulsive womaniser, meets his ex-wife for a drink and seduces her young female friend. A former radical, he now helps rich speculators demolish slum tenements.

When Sean, a one-time Sinn Fein comrade of Cathy's, arrives, an uneasy Pedro persuades Cathy to avoid a further meeting. Cathy learns she is HIV +, infected by Pedro. Shattered, she throws him out. The lost little girl is chanced upon by an unhappily married jeweller who takes her to a hotel room. There, he kills himself but leaves the girl unharmed. Daniel, robbing a depot, is wounded by an armed guard. He shoots the guard dead and makes his way to Cathy's apartment; she takes him in, tends his wound and helps him off drugs. Once healed he leaves to go back on the streets, though she begs him to stay. Weak from her illness, Cathy drives wildly through the city, encountering people fleeing from some massive disaster.


Fado - meaning, literally, fate - is the chief style of Portuguese folk-song. Its predominant mood is relentlessly pessimistic to an almost comic degree: in the typical fado everything is terrible and can only get worse. Tellingly, a fado features on the soundtrack of Mal (along with, eclectically enough, Pat Boone and John McCormack). In a moment worthy of this doleful folk music, Cathy, the ex-pat Irish woman succumbing to Aids caught from her tom-cat of a husband, comforts herself with the reflection that "There's always someone whose suffering is greater." This insight is borne out by the film as a whole, in which virtually all the characters encounter disaster or death. Even a couple glimpsed briefly in the street are locked in a savage marital squabble. Only the seemingly most vulnerable, the little runaway girl, survives everything unscathed, protected by her matter-of-fact innocence.

With its multiple urban stories criss-crossing and sometimes intersecting, Mal comes across as a scaled-down version of Robert Altman's Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. But while Mal bears certain structural similarities to these, it lacks Altman's intricately entwined ironies no less than Anderson's flamboyant sense of fantasy; the stories Portuguese director Alberto Seixas Santos tells are banal and do little to illuminate each other. In a film whose "main theme is evil and its power of contamination," the vital links are missing: there's no connection between, say, Pedro's loveless philandering and the suicide of the jeweller trapped in an acrimonious marriage. The impression you get is of a batch of random newspaper reports slung together in search of a thesis.

Along the way, Seixas Santos, whose 1973 film Brandos costumes was banned in Portugal for its radical content, gropes towards a wider political context: the plight of African immigrants in Europe (Cathy works for a refugee agency), the dispossession of the urban poor, the souring of youthful radical ideals. ("Dreams have a sell-by date. I've learned that. You haven't," Pedro patronisingly remarks.) But none of these themes is developed, and the most effective moments are smaller and more personal incidents, unburdened by weighty intimations: the little girl, casually begging on behalf of a blind street musician and pragmatically taking one coin for him, one for herself; Cathy, weeping in her car, reverting to childhood mantras and gulping the phrases of a Hail Mary; or the two cheeky-faced street urchins who with casual cruelty burn an old man's treasured photo of his granddaughter. Unforced moments such as these carry far more power than the film's metaphysical gestures or its arbitrary cataclysmic finale.


Alberto Seixas Santos
Amãndio Coroado
Alberto Seixas Santos
Director of Photography
Acácio de Almeida
Catarina Ruivo
Production Designer
Maria José Branco
©Rosa Filmes/Quimera Filmes/Metropolitan Films/Camelot Pélis
Production Companies
Rosa Filmes presents in co-production with
Metropolitan Films (Ireland), Camelot Pélis (Spain), Quimera Filmes (Brazil),
Radiotelevisião Portuguesa (Portugal)
Supported by Eurimages
Financially assisted by IPACA Instituto Portugués da Arte Cinematográfica e
Audiovisual and Secretaria para o Desenvolvimento do Audiovisual do Ministério
da Cultura do Brasil
Associate Producers
Luis Collar
James Flynn
Simone Magalhães
Production Manager
António Gonçalo
Unit Production Manager
Luis Silva
Assistant Directors
Maria Paola Porru
Paulo Guilherme Santos
Miguel Sargento
João Pedro Rodrigues
Script Supervisor
Patricia Saramago
Hubbard Casting
Story Collaborators
António Cabrita
Maria Velho Da Costa
Luís Salgado Matos
José Dias de Souza
Special Effects
Fernando Monteiro
Set Decorator
Carlos Subtil
Silvia Grabowski
Ana Lorena
João Botelho
Title Opticals
Jerónimo Silva
"Love Letters in the Sand" - Pat Boone; "The Green Isle of Erin" - John McCormack; "Fado Rita" - Maria Teresa Noronha; "Jordanna" - Don Baker; "Das Buch mit sieben Sigeln" - Franz Schmidt
Victor Puertas
Vasco Pimentel
Nuno Carvalho
Vasco Pimentel
Sound Editors
Vasco Pimentel
Nuno Carvalho
Pauline Cadell
Cathy Coelho
Rui Morrisson
Pedro Coelho
Alexandre Pinto
Alicia Gomes Da Costa
little girl
Fábio Emanuel Silva
Daniel's friend
José Pinto
little girl's grandfather
Luis Lima Barreto
Senhor Cruz
Manuela Carona
Cathy's friend
Maria Santos
Lia Gama
Emilia, Daniel's mother
Zita Duarte
Don Baker
Sofia Aparicio
TV star
Luis Esparteiro
Luis Vicente
Carlos César
Madalena Leal
Maria da Luz, Pedro's sister
Sofia Leite
Marianada Luz, Pedro's sister
Helena Flór
Paula Só
Rui Luís
lorry driver
Baltazar Terlica
bus driver
Orlando Filipe
Raquel Maria
Paula Sá Nogueira
Águeda Sena
women residents
Bia Gomes
Senhora Mutembe
Carla Chambel
jeweller's girl
Miguel Figueiredo
António Evora
men residents
Augusto Portela
Hugo Sequeira
young boy
Vanessa Agapito
Luís Branquinho
Luís Filipe
little boys
Adelino Tavares
Pedro Efe
Maria Henriqueta
guard's wife
João Viegas
blind man
José Dias De Souza
down and out
Zita Ferreira
Nuno Vieira De Almeida
church organist
Miguel Mendes
dubbed voices
Maria João Luís
Pauline Cadell
Sylvie Rocha
Maria Santos
Sérgio Freire Delgado
Fábio Emanuel Silva
Artificial Eye Film Company
7,689 feet
85 minutes 26 seconds
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011