Sintra – Infinite journey

on Nov 1, 2018 in Now Boarding | No Comments

Actors John Ventimiglia and Michael Imperioli are both unable and unwilling to forget Portugal. We are on a magic mountain, immersed in memories and Portuguese passions.

And then there was the time when John Ventimiglia climbed into a ditch at São Jorge Castle, in Lisbon. He was playing an archaeologist, it was a real excavation, and before the director cried “Action!”, Ventimiglia looked at the layers of soil, like a time machine made of earth, the vortex “of something that stirs us to life” because of the connection to the past. He’s recalling this, and such deep reflection gives way to a joke that could only come from someone born on the other side of the Atlantic: “All of that is well before the 1950s!” That decade (everything gets mixed up in this conversation) was the golden age of the now-closed cabaret club, Maxime, which was located near Avenida da Liberdade, inspiration for Bruno de Almeida’s recently released film, Cabaret Maxime (now released in DVD – see text box), which stars Ventimiglia. Actually, the same Ventigmilia sang at the real Maxime over ten years ago, the club’s final golden age. His performance included a joke about another hole, a well: “A guy walks past a well. He looks inside. He sees his reflection in the water and cries ‘Someone’s stuck down there!’. He asks someone else for help and when the other guy looks down, he says: ‘Oh no, there are two! Let’s call the police’. An officer arrives, he looks down and calms them: ‘Don’t worry. There’s a policeman there’”. He pauses for the second punchline. “And those three guys were George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.” And because the joke includes the ex-president, the ex-vice-president and the ex-Secretary of State for Defense of the United States, this cocktail-conversation manages strangely to make even more sense, because, according to Ventimiglia, Cabaret Maxime, the film, which is about a cabaret manager and performers resisting change, is also a manifesto for freedom of expression and community values, issues that have not been without their problems in his country lately. Then Ventimiglia sang “That’s life!” in the show at the old Maxime.

 

Community

Michael Imperioli also has a history in less obvious places in Portugal. After walking to Pena Palace, here in Sintra, on the return journey, he decided to take the scenic route through the forest. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until he saw signs for the same thing pointing in different directions, an altar with vestiges of dubious rituals, as well as bizarre objects and pieces of fabric tied to trees. Unsurprisingly, he thought better of it, turned around and took the normal route back into town, although the episode did nothing to dent his love of the “Gothic land” of Sintra. This adventure occurred in 2006, during a break from filming The Inner Life of Martin Frost by writer and director Paul Auster, which was shot in the area. This was at the same time that his band, La Dolce Vita, played at Maxime. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand both actors’ relationships with Portugal.

John and Michael met in New York when they were studying acting. Bruno de Almeida had moved there in 1985 and gave them main roles in On the Run, his first feature-length film (1998), which also stars Drena De Niro. In 2005, John and Drena acted in some of Almeida’s short films that were part of The Collection series. In 2007, the director called on the three to appear in The Lovebirds, which was filmed in Lisbon (even Drena’s father visited the city and had a drink in the Bairro Alto neighbourhood). Operação Outono, which looks at the assassination of General Humberto Delgado, an opponent of the Portuguese dictatorship, was released in 2012 with Ventimiglia in the main role. Cabaret Maxime brings the three together again, with others from Bruno’s circle, including Portuguese actors like Joaquim de Almeida and Ana Padrão (who appeared with Im-perioli in The Lovebirds), as well as Nick Sandow (a familiar face in Orange Is the New Black), Arthur J. Nascarella, David Proval, from Sopranos (like Ventimiglia and Imperioli), and John Frey, another New Yorker, who has participated in all of these films, co-wrote most of them and has lived in Lisbon for the last decade, running a successful acting studio.

All converge in Cabaret Maxime – “A New York film shot in Portugal and at the same time a Portuguese film shot with New York actors”, says Michael –, partially shot in Cais do Sodré, Lisbon’s old red light district, where houses of ill repute were replaced by clubs, as well as another old cabaret spot, the Ritz, also now closed, emulating areas and lives that have disappeared from the two cities over the last 30 years and more. Imperioli says: “Cais do Sodré reminds me of the Meatpacking District in New York, which, during the ‘80s and the ‘90s was not a lot cool. It was kind of dark, it was edgy, there were a couple of dive bars, there was a S&M club that was notorious – but it was interesting, it was authentic, it was very New York. That place exploded into really expensive bottle service night clubs, restaurants, and it has absolutely no truthfulness, people go there to be seen, get drunk, it doesn’t feel like a New York experience, it’s not organic. It’s not burst out of the community, or out of the tradition, or out of history” – which is what Cabaret Maxime is about. And which, despite Lisbon’s recent transformation, they still find here. Ventimiglia: “There’s a beauty and joy to the community of artists I found here. And when you think about the culture and history of Portugal, it still resonates with this kind of need to really take something back to themselves. There’s not any kind of overt rebellious anger or anything like that; there’s this joyous life in such a small city. You don’t have to go far to be part of that”.

Vadim Imperioli would undoubtedly agree. The young actor and director, Michael’s son, has just joined the group after a day exploring Lisbon on his own, arriving now in the company of Bruno de Almeida – turning the conversation into a host of unstoppable laughs, telling unpublishable stories about the film’s shooting. Their relationship is also organic, which is why, when they work together, and you see the result on the screen, it seems like it was easy, like the camera rolling was a mere detail on the path of their eccentric friendship. However, they’re in Sintra, and the impact of Sintra always has an effect– “It’s a very unique place not even just to Portugal, but to any other country I’ve ever been to”, says Michael; “This is not just an amusing ride somewhere. This is singular, you’re not going to see it anywhere else”, says John.

 

Secret paths

We’re here, at the end of the day, on the bar balcony at Seteais. This impressive 18th-century palace on the outskirts of Sintra was transformed into a hotel in the 1950s, and is where Imperioli and Ventimiglia will spend the night. A few hours ago, we had a splendid lunch at the Penha Longa Resort, yet another marvel in the “glorious Eden” that is Sintra (Lord Byron dixit), then – not knowing that Ventimiglia would share subterranean revelations – we began the afternoon actually descending a well. Not just any old well. An initiation well.

Anyone visiting Sintra knows they have to explore Quinta Regaleira. Initially built in the late-19th century on a slope, it was the earthly and spiritual home of the millionaire, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, who made his fortune in Brazil. The entire estate is a mystical itinerary, from the palace (built with stone from Coimbra) to the chapel (the main altarpiece was commissioned in Venice); from the caves and viewpoints to the gardens (most of the plants bought in Rio de Janeiro) and, most of all, the well, which is like an inverted tower. It symbolises the path of knowledge: visitors wind their way down into the darkness, traversing tunnels and labyrinths, following the light towards the exit. Towards Enlightment, ideally. When we left gentrified Lisbon in the morning, we hadn’t given John and Michael much information about this place, which provoked expressions of amazement. “Extraordinary!”, “I love this!” and “Where are you taking us?”. And Michael constantly highlighted the importance of Portugal being the country he has visited most, outside the USA, just like John, who says: “To get here, to this country, was a whole other awakening, a whole other world”.

 

by João Macdonald \\\ photos João Carlos

Arquivos

John Ventimiglia & Michael Imperioli

The world knows them well from The Sopranos – John was the chef Artie Bucco, Michael was Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s protégé – and elsewhere. At the start of his career, Imperioli starred in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and featured in films and series like Malcolm X, NYPD Blues, Summer of Sam (also as co-writer), Law & Order, Californication and Hawaii Five-O. In 2009, he wrote and directed the feature film The Hungry Ghosts and is the author of the novel, The Perfume Burned His Eyes. Ventimiglia’s career is no less impressive: Cop Land, Bullets Over Broadway, The Funeral, Mickey Blue Eyes, Blue Bloods and The Good Wife, among others. Both are artistic companions of the Portuguese director Bruno de Almeida, from On the Run to the recent Cabaret Maxime.

Tivoli Palácio de Seteais

In 1787, Daniel Gildemeester, Consul of the Netherlands in Portugal, ordered the construction of this magnificent house in the Seteais Fields. The property has changed hands many times, been extended and become one of Sintra’s architectural gems. One of its highlights is the triumphal arch (1802), which boasts effigies of the royal figures João VI and Carlota Joaquina, who were regular visitors to the palace. Nowadays, Seteais is one of the most remarkable hotels in Europe, run by the Portuguese Tivoli group. It opened to the public in 1955, after being renovated by the architect, Raul Lino. The 30 rooms, the Anantara Spa, the gardens and golf course are irresistible.

tivolihotels.com/tivoli-palacio-de-seteais

Arola, Penha Longa

Everything stems from history: the impressive Penha Longa Resort, which has one of Portugal’s finest golf courses, grew around the Nossa Senhora da Saúde monastery, a national monument preserved since the 14th century, just one of the many delights of this sophisticated hotel. We enjoyed the cuisine from Arola, one of the hotel’s eight restaurants, which serves original tapas in an informal context. All of this is overseen by Spanish chef Sergi Arola, as diners savour a landscape from inside the restaurant or at the tables on the balcony.

Estrada da Lagoa Azul, Sintra \\\ penhalonga.com

Showtime!

There are musical numbers with tigers, incredible singers – like theMozambican Selma Uamusse –, whips, a burlesque orchestra, an electrical guitar hero, old and young gangsters. The story revolves around Bennie Gaza (Imperioli), who runs Cabaret Maxime, a nightclub in a rundown old quarter. When the area start being gentrified, Bennie has to fight to keep the place afloat, and this is where things get tricky, amongst the threats, beautiful women and bizarre music. Bruno de AlmeIda’s film was launched on DVD this month - with Almeida’s short film masterpiece The Debt (1993) as an extra feature

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