Joaquim Pinto’s Portuguese language film What Now? Remind Me is too big a film to lend itself to a narrative or scene-by-scene exposition. Along with a conversation with the director, it was screened as a plenary session at “The Place of Religion in Film,” a conference organized by Gail Hamner at Syracuse University. It is what they call “spiritual, not religious” while explicitly steeped in Christianity and Christian categories, which the film sets in nature as a philosophy of life. As film, the spiritual effects are entirely mediated. A Stoic production in its philosophical orientation, Pinto’s film resembles a sort of biblical wisdom or anti-wisdom literature. It is at the cross between Psalms and Ecclesiastes, saturated by a euphoric but knowing sensibility of life and human limit whose milieu is Mediterranean.
What Now? Remind Me moves slowly following Pinto through the course of a year or so of treatments for hepatitus C related to the AIDS virus. The film is comprised of a set of shot-types. These include  Pain: Pinto speaks with great labor and quiet intensity directly into the camera. He seeks with painful eloquence to convey his condition at various stages of the treatment and his recuperation as a mirror of the human condition writ large. Ecce Homo, the director-protagonist is “Everyman.”  Nature: The camera tracks the motion of a slug, the replication of viruses from under a microscope, a dragonfly in suspended animation, dogs at home in the Portuguese countryside, dogs abandoned by hunters on the side of a road, human architectures of modern life such as airports and hospitals, and basic elements such as earth, water, and fire.  Politics: Shots of news footage as mediated on television or a computer screen convey the sense that we are living in a state of political and ecological emergency.  Domesticity: Eschewing the friend/enemy distinction that defines the public agora in radical/fascist political theory, the place of the film is set in the oikos set in nature.
Pinto himself together with Leonel shot the film without the interventions of camera crews and production companies. The viewer is, at were, at home alone with the creators of this film. An intimate cinematic portrait of a life and life, What Now? Remind Me is Aristotelian in its intellectual scope. But the world picture is flattened in that lacks any hierarchical, metaphysical structure. In this meditation, all things are first things: a philosophy of nature, a philosophy of history, aesthetics and ethics, a philosophy of religion, a philosophy of politics, a phenomenology of perception, a philosophy of life, an ontology.
The main motif is our being in the world –marked out in terms of corporeal vulnerability, bio-technological and bio-political structures, the ethical care of the self and of others, the miracle of spiritual regeneration and the inevitability of death. Its version of Christian religion sets the institution of the church and church dogma aside, living in the sense of a quiet finitude of the present moment. Himself silent throughout the film and frequently naked, with a thick beard and a heavy mane of hair, Leonel, compared to Pinto’s loquaciousness, is a symbol. At first I thought, here’s the Christ figure, but that’s not quite right. Leonel’s is the screen presence of St. John, around whose gospel the film is explicitly themed, and about whom Pinto and Leonel made another film, The New Testament of Jesus Christ According to John. To follow the explicit scriptural citations, what Pinto takes from the Gospel of John is the imperative to love and only to love, which he couples with the depth ecology of the law regarding sabbatical year and jubilee in the book of Leviticus.
Looking online for information, I found this bit of commentary here by Francisco Ferreira, which you can read in full here. I’m citing this long passage because, starting off with an exceptional moment in a film full of exceptional shots, Ferreira evokes so well the large canvas of the film. He writes, “There is a book in the movie, a fabulous and mystical one, illustrated by one of the most important figures of the Renaissance in Portugal, Francisco de Holanda (1517-1585). Housed in the National Library in Madrid, De Aetatibus Mundi Imagenes (The Illustrated Ages of the World) tells us the story of the world in images, and its importance in the organization of the film is crucial. When Pinto, loaded with pills and interferon, remembers his time in East Germany (where he met a certain ‘activist’ named Angela Merkel while living in Leipzig), when he leaves a car with Nuno, extinguisher on hand, to fight a fire, or approaches a pack of dogs abandoned by their owners, when Pinto has sex with his partner, goes down the Castro da Columbeira caves, questions the Neanderthals, and quotes, like Monteiro, the Portuguese poet Ruy Belo, Saint Augustine, or the Gospel According to Mark, there’s something chimeric that comes from the Francisco de Holanda book that acts like a contagion in the film’s structure, changing our perception of reality.”
It would be entirely erroneous to read Pinto’s work as expressed here in the short blurb of a review in the NYT that “the film repeatedly erases the neutral hues of sickness with the lush vibrancy of nature.” This is utterly mistaken of the perception of reality in this film. What Now? Remind Me is not a theodicy. Nothing is forgotten or erased. Personal distress is just one among others, ecological and political stress points all subsistent as the condition of late capitalism. The suffering wrought by and upon human life is seen as all carried further until some later point of extinction. Said not in anger, human life will end. What marks, then, this life in the meantime is the sheer will exemplified by the sick person in the process of recovery who understands better than most people the difficulty under which one has to will, to will oneself to move, to will oneself to breathe, to will oneself to believe. And then the miracle? Towards the end of the film, Christmas is literally announced as the good news, natal figure of hope. This message is then hedged in by a long, ironic shot of caged turkeys shipped off in a lorry for holiday feasts. If I remember correctly, it was soon after this shot that Pinto’s intones with the sense of sad wisdom, “When we go back to dust, life will sigh with relief.”
I also found online this insightful piece by Max Nelson, which goes to the philosophical and theological heart of the matter. You can read it here. Nelson is writing about The New Testament of Jesus Christ According to John. Modelled more brightly than Pasolini’s movie on the Gospel of Matthew, in this film, the complete text of the Gospel of John is read (by Luís Miguel Cintra) juxtaposed with images drawn from nature. Nelson understands the film as building on the idea of revelation. He explains, “It is this theme, one senses, that most interested Pinto and Leonel, who transform The New Testament into a demonstration of what it looks like for a text to find a material voice: literally, by virtue of Cintra’s voiceover, and figuratively, in the movie’s stream of beguiling, tactile images. This exercise in reading the physical world as a kind of mouthpiece for the revealed Word would, as it turned out, heavily inform Pinto’s next film.”
In What Now? Remind Me, it is “life,” not “God,” that finds its material mark in the space in between the physical voice and the moving image. Again, Max Nelson: “that plants, animals, and natural phenomena have something to tell us—a message to reveal, a Word to make incarnate, an inheritance to bestow—that can only be heard by careful listening and re-listening, which is to say, recording.” I’m not sure if “message” is the right word for this unspooling of images. But Nelson’s use of the word “Word” suggests that, such as it is, the divine in What Now? Remind Me is presented as epiphenomenal. The revelation would be the revelation itself, an old idea that goes back to Martin Buber, the idea of revelation that begins in nature, that proceeds from this world and from this world alone, this lively world of earth and decay. There is not a trace of negative theology. The sense of the spiritual is given in the relational-aesthetic juxtaposition of one image and world followed by the next image and world. (I expect to find something of the exact same when I go see the movie on the Gospel of John.)
You can find What Now? Remind Me on Amazon, but do not be misled by the picture of Pinto’s ravaged face with which the distributors, for some reason, thought wise to pitch the DVD. The film is nothing like that. I don’t usually show trailers here at the blog, but this here will give you the sense of this meditation, which is simultaneously sad and ecstatic.