Night Train to Lisbon

The words of Amadeo DeAlmeida Prado – Imagination is the last refuge.

I’m not sure how I found this film, Night Train to Lisbon. Maybe it is because I am always looking around in the foreign film section on Netflix. But I am happy to have seen this remarkable film.

Jeremy Irons plays Raimund Gregorius, a Swiss college professor teaching and living in Berne. His wife had given him the heave-ho a while back, so now he lives a solitary life. His students aren’t much interested in the words of Marcus Aurelius (Raimund teaches Ancient classics in the languages Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) and to amuse himself, Raimund plays chess against himself.

On a rainy morning, as he is walking to work – he sees a young woman standing on the railing of Berne’s Kirchenfeld Bridge, an apparent suicide about to happen. Some how he shouts, runs towards her, and rescues her. He takes her with him to his class, but during his lecture, she leaves. All that is left behind is her red leather coat. He quickly leaves the class, having seen her walking away through the classroom window, as he hopes to return her coat to her.

But she’s not in sight. He retraces his way back to the bridge, but still cannot find her. Searching in the coat’s pockets, he finds a book written by Amadeo Prado, which he leafs through and is impressed by the writer’s philosophies and ideas.

If it is so that we live only a small part of the life within us, what happens to the rest?

Raimund notices on the inside of the book cover a stamped seal of the book seller’s shop, so he hastens over there. The book seller remembers selling this very book, the day before. As they discuss the buyer, a paper falls out from between the pages. It is a ticket for the train to Lisbon, Portugal, and the train is leaving shortly.

We live here and now. Everything before, in other places, is past; mostly forgotten.

Gregorius arrives on the platform, but there’s no sign of the girl. On impulse, he decides to use her ticket.

So he takes this train to Lisbon, in hopes of finding this woman, and to find out about the book, and its author, Amadeo DeAlmeida Prado.

What could, what should be done with all the time that lies ahead of us, open and unshaped, feather light in its freedom, and lead heavy in its uncertainty.

And there’s your set up. For Gregorius, words are like jewels, to be treasured as well as admired. At this point, we are just about nine and half minutes into the film. As Gregorius is hooked by the words in the book, we, as film viewers are hooked too.

Night Train to Lisbon was originally an international best-selling book written in German in 2004 by Pascal Mercier, and later published in English. This film is an adaption of the book and the award-winning Billie August directed.

When dictatorship is a fact, revolution is a duty.

The structure of the film is that we watch as Gregorius, in the present, searches for the author, and discovers many people who knew Prado. Then at times those people come to life on-screen as they were 40 years ago during the time when Portugal was under the  dictatorship of Salazar. The people we meet are idealists, and romantics, as well as revolutionaries. So we have three stories running simultaneously:

Gregorius in the present and his budding relationship with a Lisbon optometrist, Marianna, played by Martina Gedeck whose uncle  Joao (played by Tom Courtney), knew Prado long ago

Gregorius in the present and his dealings with the people mentioned in the book, or more accurately – the people in Amadeo’s life 40 years ago, who he meets in the present.

The people in the book whose lives forty years ago intersected with Amadeo Prado played by Jack Huston. The key figures, besides Amadeo are Stefania, and Jorge.

Yes, it is intricate. You might be a bit confused for a bit as it takes time to connect the older actors with the younger actors who played the same characters. But while intricate, it is has the elements of being a thriller. When you have a dictator, and his strong-armed secret police, lives are in peril. People who publicly disparaged the Salazar regime, be they journalists, clergy, or judges, simply disappeared – either killed, imprisoned, or they’ve fled into exile. The film presents us with the excitement, the risks, and the frightening aspects of being a revolutionary. While Gregorius is looking backward from what he learns in the present, we are both in the past and the present. There’s a paradoxical element to the film too. Long ago, in that time when trust was paramount, who can you trust? At the same time, can we take everything told to us (and Gregorius) in the present as the unvarnished truth, or must we assume that memories have been changed, and/or faded over the course of so many years.

Irons is superb as the college professor who believes that his whole life is insignificant (my life is so…but they LIVED….) compared to the passionate revolutionaries from the past. He tells Marianna that his long departed wife left him because he was ‘boring’. Jack Huston is excellent as the doctor, poet, author, and revolutionary Amadeo.

Melanie Laurent plays the young Stefania who asks Amadeo – what if your first assignment is to kill your father (a conservative Lisbon judge and a supporter of Salazar) ?

Charlotte Rampling plays Adriana, the sister of Amadeo in the present,

and Bruno Ganz plays the older Jorge. Back in the day, it was Jorge who brought Amadeo into the world of idealism and he also introduced Amadeo to Stefania.

Watch for Christopher Lee as a priest who long ago was Amadeo’s teacher.

I liked the film despite its often slow pace. It asks that you be patient and that you follow closely. Then there’s the city of Lisbon itself which serves as the location and back drop for the film. It is a beautiful city with its parks, sea views. rides on the ferries and cable cars, and of course the narrow, curvy, cobbled, and hilly streets.

I expected the film to have characters who spoke Portuguese and we’d have subtitles. But the whole film is in English.

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again, only by going back there. We travel to ourselves when we go to a place that we have covered a stretch of our life, no matter how brief it may have been.

I’m going to give the film a three-point-seven five, and I will recommend it. While it is short on action, and slow-paced, we are looking at a time of high passion, and turmoil. The characters are alive, and Jeremy Irons who often quotes from the book is just great. It is a nostalgic film, a kind of thriller, and a film that makes you consider some philosophical ideas that are often profound.

You can watch the film on Netflix streaming, or you can find it on youtube. Check out the trailer.




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