Film Review: Sunburn   

Writer and Director:  Vincente Alves do Ó

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

Portuguese film Sunburn really split the critics at its press screening this week at the BFI Flare Festival, London’s biggest LGBTQ+ film festival. Some walked out while others kept glancing at their watches. After the film, those who had stayed were trying to extol Sunburn’s virtues to those who had threatened to walk out. The controversy is not down to any offensive content; in a way, something nasty may have lifted this film. The problem with Sunburn is that nothing much happens.

Francisco (Nuno Pardal) has invited his three friends to his modernist – all glass and right angles – house in the Portuguese countryside. Here they laze by the pool, drink cocktails in the afternoon, and dance to samba in the evening. As they switch partners it’s hard to fathom who is going out with who. Are the three men and one woman engaged in some polyamorous relationship?

Simão (Ricardo Barbosa) writes screenplays but is suffering from writer’s block. He drinks and smokes his way through the afternoon, rarely glancing at his laptop. Joana (Oceana Basilio) sleeps in late, exercises and then wonders which bikini to wear. Vasco (Ricardo Pereira) keeps sneaking off to phone his lover, a married man he found on the internet a year ago and who he still hasn’t met in the flesh. A little bit older than the others, Francisco orders food from the local restaurant and makes sure that everyone has enough to drink.

But on this particular day, their routine is ruined by a telephone call. David announces that he is on his way to the house, and that it should only take him a few hours to get there from Lisbon. Tensions rise as David’s arrival time becomes closer. Only slowly do we find out how David is connected to each of the four friends, and as the sun gets higher in the sky, writer and director Vincente Alves do Ó reveals the barest of details to who this visitor may be. Instead, we are given more shots of the pool, more shots of Simão sitting on his bed in his white trunks, and more shots of Joana sunbathing, swatting away the flies that plague this paradise.

As we piece together the friends’ complicated history, Sunburn becomes a study of anticipation and impending menace, borrowing a good deal from Pinter and even Waiting For Godot– and we all know how the latter turned out. When, finally, the secrets are spilled, they seem blankly pedestrian and more suited to a Brazilian soap opera, which one character remembers having watched as a child. These secrets disappoint so much it might have been more interesting if they had never been exposed.

The film looks good but its glossy sheen can’t sustain the 80-minute running time, and while the samba sung by Brazilian Johnny Hooker fits very well, the familiar Vivaldi, studding some scenes, seems a lazy choice, and adds even more theatricality to an already static film. Sunburn lives up to its name, and by the end of the film you feel that you’ve been lying in its rays for far too long.

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