Aniki Bóbó is one of those movies unknown to most of the world because its director didn’t have the foresight to produce it in the U.S., France, Japan, or other country with a prolific film output. It was, instead, made in Portugal, a country not generally associated with great filmmaking, so it has languished in obscurity for decades. It seems only movie dorks and cultural snobs have given it any love. I supposed it’s lucky (?) that I fall into one or both of those categories, because it has given me the opportunity to know about, see, and fall in love with Aniki Bóbó, a classic film about childhood, innocence (or its loss), and the effects of guilt. Despite its technical roughness and non-professional child actors, it’s as close to a perfect movie as they come and just barely is edged out of the top spot of 1942.
Director Manuel de Oliveira doesn’t so much tell a story as create (or recreate) the hierarchical, high-stakes world of children in the Portuguese city of Porto. Carlito is a small but scrappy young boy hopelessly in love with Terezina, but, as is usually the case, the class bully Edouardo stands between them. If this sounds like the basic premise behind most Popeye cartoons, it is. But Oliveira skillfully maneuvers us past this initial conflict quickly, keenly aware that no relationship or power structure remains static in the fluid world of children for long. Relationships, conflicts, and alliances are remarkably elastic. At one point Carlito and Edouardo are trading blows, but by the evening they are playing cops and robbers together.
A major thread of the movie’s narrative involves Carlito’s guilt after pinching a doll from the local general store as a gift for Terezina. Carlito’s plight isn’t at the level of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, but it’s enough to cause the normally confident boy to second guess his impulsive action. Even this action doesn’t fuel the major drama of the film. Instead it comes when a tragic accident occurs and everyone believes Carlitos is responsible. From the way Carlitos deals with the unjustified accusations to how he resolves his theft of the doll, we witness the early development of what will become a good, decent man.
And, of course, Portugal and much of Europe was in need of more decent men in 1942. Portugal was well in the grip of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s fascist Estado Novo. Sure, Portuguese fascism might not have been as brutal as the fascism that conquered Germany and Italy, it still relied on intimidation and repression to keep the citizenry in line. We see the same dynamic play out in Aniki Bóbó as the children enforce their social code by ostracizing Carlitos after the accident. There’s no sense of doing justice, just ensuring that everyone maintains order without question. I am always fascinated by humanistic art like this created under fascist (or any totalitarian rule) and never tire of finding ways to find connections between the repressive government and artistic attempts to surreptitiously comment on them. This is one of the best and charming movies of this kind.
Another reason this movie shines for me is the way Oliveira masterfully negotiates the movie’s characters, almost all children. It’s tough to make good movie about children. I think there are two keys. One is the casting, which Oliveira completes nearly flawlessly here. He plucked the most charismatic and photogenic children from the Portuguese port city. Nearly all are perfect, but the real gem is Horácio Silva who plays Carlitos. He isn’t a professional actor, but the camera loves his face and his natural charisma helps him muscle past some of the rough patches of his performance.
The other key to making a great movie about children is a director having respect for his subjects and Oliveira treats the often petty squabbles with the same gravity as the children themselves do. He never looks down his nose at them or handles their conflicts or dramas with any hint of condescension or irony, much like Truffaut would later do in his brilliant 1976 film L’argent de poche.
Preemptive defense of upcoming controversy: Anyone who has been paying attention realizes there is only one spot left and two classic U.S. films that most would at least include on a list of the best of 1942, if not top it. I will admit without tipping my hand that one of these movies I actively loathe. I’m ready to take the slings and arrows of outraged film fans; I’ve done it before. So I’ll reveal the top choice and I’ll get all kinds of comments like, “How could you leave off…, you idiot!” I’m aware that I do not like a movie most of you claim to adore. Without giving too much away, I will defend my antipathy by saying I have seen it several times and each time I watch it I try to reset my past dislike and find the genius everyone claims to see. But each time I get more and more depressed as I lose interest in the narrative and its characters. So before I’m jumped on for being negligent, know I’ve watched and evaluated the movie you love and honestly find it to be grossly overrated.