José y Pilar

José y Pilar directed by Miguel Gonçalves Mendes

The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, had no family funds to study beyond the 4th grade and only began writing seriously as he approached his 60s. Miguel Goncalves documentary Jose and Pilar follows from 2006 through 2008 the surprisingly hectic life of the famous octogenarian, who died in 2010, and his fifty-something wife Pilar del Rio, a former Spanish journalist whom he married in 1988. The hecticness appears to be entirely the work of Pilar, who functions not only as wife and Spanish translator of his books but also as full-time agent, nurse, party-planner, muse and manager. About her he says, “I have ideas for books but she has ideas for life. I don’t know which is more important.” 

Pilar has the guy on the road or in the air seemingly nonstop. No book tour, book signing, rally or writer’s conference is alien to her. (In one particularly funny moment, we see a shot of both Saramago and Gabriel Garcia Marquez dozing off on a writers’ panel). One gets the impression that, were it not for Pilar, whom he clearly adores, Saramago would be quite content to putter about at home and, you know, write. He says in the film that he wishes he could be a tree with roots so deep in the earth no one could move him. If so, he married the wrong arborist. 

His writing regimen is simple: two pages per day –no more, no less. Early on, Goncalves shows us the master peering intently into his computer and then typing. We think he must be composing his new novel only to have the camera swivel around to show us that, in fact, Saramago is playing online solitaire. Saramago and Pilar decamped in 1992 to the Canary Islands when Portugal’s conservative government censured his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and the sting of selfimposed exile is particularly felt by Pilar. Jose and Pilar attempts to portray Saramago as both an atheist-Communist firebrand and a crochety yet kindly senior citizen. He answers fan mail screened by Pilar. (One letter writer sends him a recipe for cod au gratin). He dutifully signs books for interminable lines of fans and even accedes, not altogether happily, to requests for a kiss on the cheek. 

But he is also given to issuing pronouncements that have the ring of finality. One of his more upbeat bon mots: “To feel that the end of each day is an irreparable loss, that’s probably what old age is all about.” The best thing he can say about religion is, “The history of mankind is the history of misunderstandings with God. He doesn’t understand us, we don’t understand him.” More typical is this: “Once sin had been invented, the guy who invented it had a fantastic weapon he could use to dominate the other people –and that’s what the church did. It’s just a fake, a tragic farce.” 

One subject that doesn’t rear its ugly head in Jose and Pilar is the controversy that erupted over Saramago’s statement in  2003, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, that “Jews no longer deserve sympathy for the suffering they went through during the Holocaust.” The insertion of those sentiments would have considerably altered the homespun man-of-wisdom image Goncalves strives to maintain for Saramago. It also would have made for a more bracing and less sentimental movie.

Peter Rainer