For as long as anyone can remember, people have travelled in every direction. Most cannot travel on luxury yachts or jets, and some would call it a luxury to travel by car. They simply have to travel on foot or in rickety boats, taking hope as their only possession, armed with one ambition: to find a better life. The journey is never easy, and is rife with dangers and obstacles to overcome - and sometimes they lose everything along the way.
Transe, the hard-hitting release from Portuguese director Teresa Villaverde, 40, (The Mutants, 1998), paints an uncomfortable picture of the European continent. It is a land of misery and exploitation for many who try to cross her.
Acclaimed at the International Film Festival of Catalonia and in Cannes 2006, Trance tells the harrowing story of Sonia (in a notable performance by Ana Moreira). This young woman leaves St. Petersburg behind in search of a better life. We never learn much about her background, but go forward with her as she embarks on a journey to Portugal. Circumstances along the way shape her destiny and make her experience truly torturous.
The journey is also not easy for the viewer. By avoiding sentimentalism and moral messages, Villaverde makes a calculated risk and presents the film in a radical way. It lacks a conventional narrative, argument or social commentary. The story, as frustrating as it is strange, is slow-paced and lacking in connecting narrative which will disconcert more than the odd viewer. But there is recompense for those who make the effort to stick it out. Trance is a cinematographic triumph, a work that is free and fascinating, and which puts the Portuguese director on a par with filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant (Elephant) or Theo Angelopoulos (Landscape in the Mist). It is a piece which deserves to be watched without any preconceptions.
The first part of the film is more metaphorical and abstract, and is, perhaps, the most interesting. It is here that we meet Sonia. She leaves Russia, finds her first job and eventually slides into prostitution. The step from hope to horror is completely unexpected. Villaverde utilises moments of calm in order to film natural exterior shots, and suddenly the plotline changes. There is deception, abduction and sexual slavery. It takes on the appearance of a new film.
During the second half of the film, which is too strident at times, we witness Sonia’s degradation. The camera focuses on the face of the protagonist, who will experience such horrors on her journey that she will be totally destroyed as a person. Initially she must fight for her life, then her dignity, and finally she gives in, losing touch with the world around her. Using a number of cuts in the narrative, the director develops the story through closed spaces. Sonia moves from a dark room to a brothel, from a bed in a dank hovel to the house of a multimillionaire with a disabled son. After all this, she finally arrives in Portugal. She has travelled through half of Europe but it does not matter. The Promised Land does not exist and the protagonist does not know who, or where, she is. She has lost everything.
A number of images stay in the minds of the viewers after the film ends. This is one film in which the format is as important as the content. In our increasingly divided world, Villaverde's experiment could not be more coherent. The journey which an immigrant undertakes is never easy. It is riddled with dark times and questions without answers, and it is this which Transe reflects perfectly.