Introduction, Cinema in the New State

Patricia Vieira: Portuguese Film, 1930-1960, The Staging of the New State Regime, Excerpt from Introduction:

In 1937, António Ferro, director of the Portuguese Secretariat of National Propaganda (Secretariado da Propaganda Nacional), organized a semi-private screening of the film The May Revolution (A Revolução da Maio, António Lopes Ribeiro) for António de Oliveira Salazar, the country’s prime minister and de facto leader. The movie, which was about to premiere in national theaters, was produced to celebrate the Revolution of 28 May 1926 that put an end to the Portuguese First Republic (1910–26) and paved the way to the institution- alization of the New State’s (Estado Novo; 1933–74) authoritarian regime.1 It remains to this day the only Portuguese fiction film that openly conveys political propaganda. Curious about Salazar’s reaction, the next day Ferro enquired about his opinion of the film and Salazar replied: “I liked that film a lot. I liked it too much, perhaps, because I could not sleep afterwards. This morning I could not work like I normally do. [...] I ask you, therefore, not to push me into this type of distractions any more.”2

This episode, narrated by Ferro, then in Berne, to the French journalist Christine Garnier, is in itself proto-cinematographic and touches upon key questions for the understanding of the films produced during the first decades of the New State.3 Ferro, stereotyped as the herald of the Portuguese artistic vanguard, displayed before the head of the government the most recent cinematographic production of the regime. Salazar, playing the public persona that he himself created, marked by conservatism and by a withdrawal from mundane pleasures, reacted with a mixture of fascination and sleeplessness to the modernity represented by the film and decided to abstain from future screenings. But is the film an avant-garde work worthy of Ferro’s innovative plans? Or, despite certain Eisensteinian overtones in the montage, is it merely a movie shored up by conventional technique and narrative? Moreover, was it really cinema, as a relatively new medium of expression, that troubled Salazar, or rather the plot of the movie, which chronicles the preparation of a communist coup d’état in Portugal? Isn’t Salazar’s comment, rather than being a provincial reaction to cinema, evidence of a clear vision of the threats to the security of the New State, a vision that led him to fund other works of propaganda? Finally, by admitting to being impressed by what he saw, was Salazar not recognizing, albeit in a negative way, the power of film and the need to put it at the service of the regime?