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.
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.
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
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