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RIP Mr. Cinema
by Alexandra Pereira
2009-05-24 09:51:41
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This month a unique man died. João Bénard da Costa belonged to that rare type of men who gather several exceptional qualities combined in such an unmatched way that people feel they are somehow irreplaceable – with multiple talents, profoundly unselfish and visionary. So many people owed him so much (and I am talking here about a special and priceless kind of debt, impossible to pay back…) that they couldn’t help feeling somehow orphaned by the shock of his sudden loss, so they all sat down, recalled episodes and conversations involving Bénard and watched his favorite films ever, once again, as a kind of homage. “Life is cinema, cinema is life”.

Bénard was curious and fascinated like a child, still wise and reflective as you imagine an old master should be – altogether, he had a charming personality. He loved culture in general (painting, literature, photography) and cinema in particular. He was intellectually very curious, had an incredibly good taste and no presumptions at all.  Where should I continue? I really don’t know… Perhaps saying that Bénard was an exceptional writer. Bénard da Costa watched a whole life of films, his favorite ones 60 or 70 times. Bénard was closely involved with the spirit and directors of the Nouvelle Vague, in Paris, since the times when he spent many months there with his best friend watching 6 or 7 films a day, then years studying Cinema, sharing moments and ideas.

Above all, Bénard was a pioneer and founded in Lisbon that place filled with affections and good movies which the director João Botelho describes proudly as “the best Cinémathèque in the whole Europe”. “Without Bénard and his work there would be no cinema in Portugal, no ideas for cinema, no nothing”, a producer states. Bénard developed a very rich film archive with great care. He was passionate about cinema, and eager to share that passion – so eager that his Cinématèque sells tickets cheaper than a cappuccino or just allows free entrances. He literally helped to raise at least 3 generations of filmmakers and script-writers, while divulging and caring for the work of three generations more. Bénard was an inspiring teacher and, above all, a dedicated friend. Bénard was an admirable critic – you would never find him writing about something he didn’t like, as he had so many good things to say, enthusiastically, about great cinema, good directors and fine ideas, cinema scenes, dialogues, plans, frames. So many things to say that his newspaper columns titled “The films of my life” were never enough. His whole life was never enough and he leaves just too early. His review articles were literary masterpieces where he combined multiple references. Many years ago, Bénard found time to publish and direct, together with another writer, a very brave magazine which was decisive for the end of dictatorship in Portugal.

Bénard was a director of cinema sections in Gulbenkian Foundation and several Art Schools, collaborated with galleries and museums. But his passion was his life project, his “daughter- Cinématèque”, its daily schedule, archive, cinema museum, cinema sessions, book editions, library and photography archive, workshops, exhibitions, seminars, activities and special celebrations developed with great care every month, where he had all the freedom he wanted to share his big screen delights and fascinations with other cinema lovers, sometimes over a coffee or a drink in the bar, and where he was a sub-director for a decade and a director for 18 years more. Bénard was a fine philosopher. Bénard liked to quote old and emergent directors from all the corners of the world about the processes involved in their artistic work. Bénard enjoyed the discovery of new films and great talents, from Iran and Thailand to Argentina, Belgium, Mongolia or the US, felt happily dizzy and humble before it all. Bénard was an incorrigible dreamer with inveterate hopes who changed the real life of many people.

Cultured, global, generous and affectionate (always sporting a cheeky smile) as he was, he could find one single interlocutor in his home country, during his lifetime, who could match him, 26 years older than he was: the director Manoel de Oliveira (currently a 100-year old, always an energetic worker, thinker and a literature lover, the oldest director still active – this week he said he was left with a “deep wound” because his dear friend left him). The two developed a deep and intense friendship – Bénard discovered Oliveira in the seventies, was an expert in his cinema and launched his international career, in return Bénard would become an actor in several masterpieces directed by Oliveira (there couldn’t be a greater reward than that one, for someone as fascinated by cinema as Bénard was…), and (surprise) Oliveira uncovered another talent of Bénard: he was a wonderful actor with a unique hoarse-tenor cinematic voice! Even as elders, they kept relating as two fascinated children who discover mysteries together and share their lives among the intensity of their common passions. Bénard has introduced generations and generations of filmmakers and cinephiles to author films, he gave his latest discoveries for others to watch and know about, he discussed, thought about and took great pleasure from it, he developed, taught, rehearsed, protected, educated, wrote and archived. Bénard loved the big screen as few grown up men are capable of.

“I’m a 100 year-old, I guess I am a grown man now. And I’m very worried about not having the time to make the films, some of those I would very much like to make them, and I cannot direct them in the other world, it’s not possible… I mean, what do I know, maybe there’s some special filming machine over there, I’ve never been there… And I’m not in a hurry” (…) “I believe that, after Bénard’s death, he must have arranged things for us to meet again in heaven” – Manoel de Oliveira. He is right; Bénard couldn’t live without sharing his passion with many people, and especially with his friends. Please reserve a studio, a special filming machine and many front row seats in cinema’s heaven special sessions, Bénard. Thank You. We all know it cannot be The End.

João Bénard da Costa was an Officier des Arts et des Lettres in France, recognized with the Pessoa Prize, the Order of the Infante D. Henrique and several University Awards for the area of Film Studies.

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