Jorge de Sena ‘on cinema’: some further insights into the genesis of O Físico Prodigioso?*

Prosseguindo na comemoração dos 50 anos de O Físico Prodigioso, aqui trazemos ensaio de Mike Harland, que entrelaça a novela e o cinema. 

Continuing the celebration of 50 years of O Físico Prodigioso, this time we present an essay of Mike Harland, which intertwines novel and movies.


Still do filme “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924)


The modernity of Jorge de Sena’s novella is often obscured by its pseudo-historical setting and a narrative peopled with knights and damsels, alchemists and inquisitors, to such an extent that the richness of the text can be mistakenly interpreted as mere poetic effect. The present-day relevance of its underlying themes and the contemporary references concealed beneath its surface often go unperceived, yet it is a work centred firmly in the twentieth century and a vital reflection of its creator’s life and ideals. It is my intention in this article, therefore, to demonstrate the importance of the contemporary sources in Sena’s writing by calling attention to a largely unexplored area of research in Sena studies — his own work Sobre Cinema.

Certainly, many of the elements which combine to form the basis for Jorge de Sena’s fantastic story, O Físico Prodigioso, were outlined by the author in his own notes to the work. He describes how it was inspired by two exemplary moral tales from the fifteenth century, but he also alludes to many mythical elements with which they were fused: ‘um conto ou novela, em que ambas as estórias se fundissem, com muitos outros mitos populares ou não, para estudo imaginativo da comunicação subconsciente e de algumas coisas mais’ (p. 131) [1]. What Sena seems to recognize in the referencing of other literature within his own writings is a vehicle for conveying universal ideas and values common to humanity and capable of maintaining their relevance: ‘fundir com a invenção própria muito do mais profundo da natureza humana (se tal coisa existe), muito do que é parte do inconsciente colectivo e comum a várias civilizações, muito do que é efectivamente ‘popular’ ou o foi (e como tal ainda significa)’ (p. 9). Beside this use of intertexts, he also refers the reader to the experimental nature of the text and structural elements such as traditional poems inserted into the narrative to create layers of meaning: ‘o experimentalismo narrativo, jogando com o espaço, o tempo, a repetição variada do texto, etc., é uma das bases essenciais desta novela’ (p. 11); ‘os poemas intercalados na nossa narrativa, de que são parte integrante e significativa’ (p. 132). One of these poems is taken from a fifteenth century author, Jorge da Silva, but in fact all recreate traditional verse forms and renew popular themes for a modern audience.

Several critics have followed up these hints by the author as to the genesis of his work and have suggested many possible sources such as ancient myths, medieval epics, as well as religious and psychological parallels in the Christ and Faust myths [2]. It is therefore fairly well established that the Físico is a complex narrative concealing many literary references which enable multiple levels of interpretation, based on paralellistic and dualistic structural devices creating paradox and ambiguity around a central allegorical intent.

Literature is not the only art form that inspired Jorge de Sena, however, since music and fine art are constant referents in his verse collections. In fact it was the intense emotion caused by a piece of music, Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, that originally set Jorge de Sena firmly on his journey as a poet. Jorge Fazenda Lourenço, in his illuminating collection of essays O Brilho dos Sinais, rightly emphasizes the syncretic nature of Sena’s cultural formation: ‘da literatura às artes plásticas, do teatro e do cinema à música, da história e das ciências à filosofia, para este humanista crítico “a cultura é livre discussão e esclarecimento e conquista pessoal da liberdade de reflexão e expressão” […] numa visão de mundo integradora de tudo’[3].

The importance of cinema in the writing of Jorge de Sena has not been commented on in any great detail, with the notable exception of an article by Emmanoel dos Santos [4]; but it is probably Mécia de Sena herself in the introduction to his collection of talks, Sobre Cinema [5], who informs us most eloquently of his love for the cinema, a fascination that accompanied him throughout his life, providing what I will show is an important inspiration for his own cultural and humanistic output.

His grandmother was the first to instil in him her love for the new medium and, having a season ticket, she or his mother would frequently take him to see what we now look upon as the classics. While a child he collected the usual picture cards about film stars and as an adult bought books on cinema whenever he could.

His father’s ambition for him to follow a naval career was frustrated when, as a navy cadet, he became deeply affected by what he saw of Spanish fascism, so that on being discharged he took up a degree in engineering instead. It is not surprising, therefore, that as a result of the turbulent emotions his experiences had provoked and in the relative freedom of university life, he should launch into a phase of intense artistic creativity, not only writing his poetry but also giving critical talks on the films that he so much admired as a new dimension of the arts.

It is Mécia de Sena herself who draws our attention to the influence one of those films might have had on the writing of the Físico: she has often alluded to scenes from the Thief of Bagdad, played by Douglas Fairbanks, where the disappearing act with a cloak, together with the conjuring of a whole army from thin air by the city walls, represent for her probable sources for the knight-physician’s cap of invisibility and the resuscitation of the army of missing knights from the castle ditch. It was while visiting her in Santa Barbara that she recounted her vivid memories to me and during a further discussion about the problem of censorship she also introduced me to Sena’s collection of talks Sobre Cinema, since this edition made a special point of including any passages that had previously been cut by the censor. I later obtained VHS copies of some of the films, one of which, The Thief, I too recalled vividly from childhood because of what then were amazing visual effects.

The Thief of Bagdad could certainly have been a source of inspiration for the Físico, since it does have some similar motifs: the dual nature of the thief as a Trickster figure is very much in keeping with the ambiguous relationship between devil and physician in the book; the princess in her ivory tower accompanied by maidens finds a parallel in the maidens who bring the Physician to Urraca’s castle; but even more intriguing is the symbol of the rose. In the film, a rose appears like magic in the sand and this is seen as a sign that whoever first touches the rose bush will be the princess’s true love — the thief disguised as a suitor is thrown from his horse and amusingly lands in the bush. He eventually finds his way to her room and later claims that when he held her in his arms the whole world changed and evil in him died. A similar fortune accompanies the Physician, whose fate is foretold by the ballad of the roses of blood and milk and who, when he comes to share Urraca’s bed, discovers the true nature of human love and tries to cast off the devil. In the film there is also an evil Mongol Prince dressed in dark clothing who is very reminiscent of the chief Inquisitor, Antão de Salzburgo (an allegorical representation, of course, of the dictator António de Salazar) surrounded by friars all dressed in black habits; like the Physician’s torturers and executioners, the Prince betrays the Thief and has him flogged and thrown to the animals so that he can be torn apart. The image of the white castle in which Urraca is confined finds an echo in the film both in the city itself and in the white castle on a hilltop from which the various suitors set out on their quests. As one of them passes the Mountains of Dread, a hermit warns of terrible monsters, remarking how many have passed by but none have returned; this is vaguely reminiscent of the many knights who were devoured by Urraca and her maidens and ended up in the burial ground of the castle ditch, causing a legend to spread so rapidly that no one dared pass by the castle any more. Similarly when the three kings manage to use a magic carpet to reach the princess and bring her back to life with a magic apple, their aspirations are dashed by the Caliph who argues that none of them alone had managed to save her; this is echoed by the three court physicians at Urraca’s castle whose special powers had previously failed to revive her from her love sickness and have to give way to the Knight-Physician. In another episode of the old man and the midnight sea, there are mermaids who are dangerous sirens tempting the Thief into evil, but his love for the princess keeps him from temptation; similarly the innocent maidens who first come upon the Physician later turn into goddesses inciting him to lust, but he manages to resist them. There is also a ghost in the film who next tells of a magic chest wrapped in a cloak of invisibility that will provide the Thief with his means of rescuing the princess; this is similar to the mysterious godmother who gave the Physician the protection of the cap of invisibility. When eventually the evil Prince’s plot to let the Mongol army into the city is discovered, the Thief uses his powers to conjure a huge white army out of thin air; he also uses the invisible cloak to escape with the princess. It is then revealed that the Thief was a great prince after all. The motto at the beginning and end of the film is ‘happiness must be earned’, which is linked to the entreaty by the princess’s servant to never lose hope and always believe in the persistence of the rose. All these themes are very reminiscent of the travails the Physician must endure to attain true love with Urraca, the raising of the dead army of knights, the reuniting of the two lovers in the grave over which the rose bush will sprout anew, leading to the reappearance at the end of another young couple borne away on a cart, while the rose of love rolls ever onward.

But why would Sena have wanted to use references from the Thief of Bagdad in his Físico? The figure of the picaresque trickster character, defying the dogmatic and corrupt regime in the name of true love, roaming the world in an effort to prove himself and return triumphant with the means to gain equal respect both as a metaphorical prince of the arts of illusion and as a real prince free and equal to all others (and of course with the lady of his dreams in his arms), all is sufficiently mirrored both in the autobiographical allegory of the peripatetic Físico and Jorge de Sena’s real life. Sena always essentially saw art as a means of combating the injustices of an authoritarian tyranny in the hope of eventually witnessing both his own and his country’s freedom.

However, all of these very common and almost universal folk motifs are perhaps too anecdotal and imprecise to forge any firm parallel between the film and Sena’s work. They are nevertheless sufficient to make one wonder to what extent Jorge de Sena recreated and recycled all art forms into literature. We only have to look at his collections of poetry, Metamorfoses and Arte da Música, to see how music, paintings and sculpture inspired much of his own creative production. The key word in all of this, of course, is Sena’s concept of ‘metamorphosis’ — the idea of transforming life into art to endow life with meaning and immortality, which in turn can forever be recreated and relived through the words of the work themselves. Emmanoel Santos certainly sees life itself as the central reference point for Sena’s commentaries on cinema: ‘Na verdade o referencial de Jorge de Sena vai além do cinema e de sua história, como vai além da literatura, do teatro, das artes em geral e suas histórias. O referencial de Jorge de Sena é simplesmente a própria vida.’

It was Mécia de Sena’s unwitting act of pointing me to the censor’s excisions from the text of Sobre Cinema that led me to uncover a much more convincing amalgam of intertextual elements in yet another film, Les Visiteurs du Soir (in English ‘The Devil’s Envoys’, in Portuguese Os Trovadores Malditos) by Marcel Carné (who later directed the better-known Les Enfants du Paradis, a film Jorge de Sena included in his best ten films to be taken on a desert island). The words that caught my eye and which had been cut from Jorge de Sena’s talk on the film (5-7-1949) were: ‘A liberdade do amor e o amor da liberdade, um e outro tão vigorosos, conscientes e firmes que contra eles as portas do Inferno não prevalecerão, representam imperativos constantes da nossa consciência, leis permanentes da nossa personalidade’ [italics mine]. This sounded remarkably like several phrases in the Short Introductory Note at the beginning of the Físico: ‘aquele “físico” […] que eu criei como símbolo da liberdade e do amor’ (p. 7) and ‘sustentado pela força do amor que tudo manda, e pelo ímpeto da liberdade que tudo arrasa’ (p. 11). Coupled with Justiça, they are of course key words that run the whole gamut of Sena’s work and are not perhaps remarkable in themselves, but they did make me wonder what particular significance they had for this French work. The script written by Jacques Prévert is supposedly based on an old French legend,‘Or donc, en ce joli moi de mai 1485 Messire le Diable dépêcha sur terre deux de ses créatures afin de désespérer les humaines’, but most critics consider there to be an allegorical reading of the film, i.e. the setting which evokes the Nazi Occupation, with the Devil as a parody of Hitler and the heroine as the Résistance.


In the on-line Harvard Film Archive, for example, there is a section on ‘Les Années Noires: French Film during the Occupation, Part 1’. One of the films referred to is Les Visiteurs:


Crippled by the occupation of the Germans in 1940, the Vichy government’s censorship of film content caused filmmakers to avoid contemporary realist expression in favour of historical subjects, mythology, and symbolism. […] This flight of fancy from director Carné and his frequent collaborator, writer Jacques Prévert, was emblematic of the escapist style of the period. Set in the fifteenth century, the film features Arletty as one of a pair of deceased lovers sent back to earth by the Devil to intervene in the courtship of two aristocrats. Complications arise as one of the envoys falls for the betrothed princess, much to the Devil’s discontent. Prévert intended the character of the Devil to be a direct representation of Hitler, a veiled allusion that necessitated the period setting. As a result, Carné was able to employ a lavish visual style while remaining critical of contemporary politics.[6]


While we are considering the views of film buffs, I was further intrigued by a comment by another on-line critic who claimed that the film was inspired by the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours, Les très riches heures: ‘Ce film est une fresque médiévale inspirée des Très riches heures du duc de Berry’ [7]. The coincidence is in fact quite apposite since yet another of the visual sources for the ‘medieval’ setting of the Físico, as Mécia de Sena frequently points out, comes from a postcard sent to Jorge de Sena shortly before he wrote the Físico, reminding him of one of the illustrations from the Hours (April) with a white castle, a walled town and a betrothal scene, in which the bridegroom is wearing scarlet boots (just like our Physician). Since Jorge de Sena had seen the manuscript when he visited Paris in the early 1950’s and makes reference to the Book of Hours in Fidelidade  [8], it is very possible that further illustrations were also sources for Sena’s descriptions. Certainly the illustration for May, with its deep polychromatic colours showing a cavalcade of nobles riding by a forest, recalls the description of the procession — ‘uma luzida cavalgada … cavalos ricamente ajaezados … vestidos coloridos e brilhantes’ (p. 54) — of Dona Urraca and her maidens as they take the Physician to where the three maidens found him. One of the riders in the illustration is glancing back at the lady, just as the Physician does in the book. All art has to be regarded as a potential source for Sena.

Jorge de Sena himself discusses the Trovadores Malditos in his first talk for the terças-feiras clássicas of the Jardim Universitário de Belas Artes. He starts by expressing his admiration for a film in which he clearly sees allegorical meaning: ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir é um filme em que a poesia, a ironia, a música, o sentido alegórico e a técnica cinematográfica aliadas a alguns séculos de consciência e de cultura, se conjugam para formar uma obra que, se não é uma das obras-primas do cinema, é sem dúvida uma das mais belas e interessantes que o cinema europeu tem produzido’ (pp. 49-50). Although he is acknowledging it is not quite a masterpiece, it clearly holds a deep personal interest for him. He goes on to state how the film could not have been made in America, because the historical and cultural references would have been a mere pot-pourri of folk tale misconceptions, with little authenticity and everything would have been filmed in gaudy Technicolor. He then proceeds to hint very carefully at the allegorical nature of the film, but always with an eye out for the censor:


Conto medieval ou fábula de hoje, Les visiteurs du soir na sua poética reconstituição de ambientes, significa isto mesmo: as tentações, as ciladas, as emboscadas nada conseguem perante a dignidade indefectível de um amor que não recua em enganar o próprio diabo como ele merece que o enganem para que a liberdade prevaleça.


Deste modo, poderíamos dizer que Les visiteurs du soir não é um filme fantástico. É uma obra actual em que as vicissitudes da condição humana são alegorizadas’ (p. 51).


I think it is quite apparent that Sena was pointing out to his audience not only how the film originally concealed a modern French context, i.e. 1942 and the Nazi Occupation, but how it was also an ‘obra actual’ and a ‘fábula de hoje’ for the Portuguese themselves in July 1949! After remarking on its ‘sensualidade maliciosa’, the fundamental forces of Freedom and Love, he again stresses how ‘a lição da actualidade mais traiçoeiramente penetrará o público desprevenido’. This is picked up at the end of the talk when he translates one of the songs for his audience and the line ‘Demónios e maravilhas’ becomes the motto for the film and its contemporary significance: ‘é bem o lema significativo deste filme, como o é do nosso tempo. E, se quisermos, da própria vida’ (p. 53).

A modern reading of the Físico has to include that of a socio-political allegory describing the repression of Portuguese society through to the sixties, under the watchful eyes of that modern form of Inquisition, the PIDE. The social divisions between left and right, as well as the human separations caused by emigration, are played out in the textual dialectics of dualism and parallelism showing characters alienated from their true selves. This schizophrenic vision of human love, denied any freedom and justice, is also played out at a psychological level in terms of Jung’s pairs of archetypes (conscious and unconscious, persona and shadow, self and anima), reflecting the divided self that seems to have always been present in Portuguese love literature, from the girls yearning for their missing boyfriends in the cantigas de amigo to the maidens lamenting their missing knights in Bernardim Ribeiro’s Menina e Moça and the shepherds torn from their lovers in his Eclogas. Little wonder then that there are so many echoes not only of the words of these texts in Sena’s work but also of their dualistic and parallelistic structures. For Sena the reality of Portuguese existence was always palpable in the literary texts that had preceded him and it must have seemed an even greater injustice that nothing much had changed even in the 1960s. All the more reason to use intertextual references in the consummate allegory that the Físico Prodigioso represents, reflecting both his own life and his generation, and to find inspiration in an art form such as Carné’s cinema which had used allegory to avoid the censorship of an oppressive regime and keep the flame of humanity alive. We shall therefore see to what extent the two allegories are linked and how cinema can inspire even greater literature.

Looking therefore at the film itself, there are many visual elements which constantly find echoes in the Físico, far more than those evoked by the Thief. The opening scene of the two minstrels, Dominique and Gilles, clad in contrasting light and dark apparel, riding their horses down a winding slope to the river, beside which there is a white castle, parallels the opening scene of the Físico where the knight slowly descends the slope to the river bank to find three maidens who will later lead him to Urraca’s white castle — even the strangely squat and square features of Carné’s ‘cardboard cut-out’ castle (quite different from the lofty pointed turrets of the familiar Hollywood Segovia castle!) are echoed in Sena’s description: ‘o castelo era pequeno, mas mais antigo; se tinha aquele aspecto de fábrica nova era porque havia passado por grandes obras, em tempos recentes’ (p. 29). Like Carné’s renunciation of Hollywood fantasy in order to point up the reality behind the allegory, Sena’s description also breaks the veneer of the romantic white castle by revealing in its description a reference to the ironically modern ‘factory’ architecture of 60s Portugal. He will also fuse into one the harlequin identities of the two minstrels (one of whom will later change personality and the other switch gender) with his unsettling homo-erotic/androgyne representations of the Physician in a hermaphroditic ‘Alchemical Wedding’ of opposites through the binary pair Urraca/Physician, whose bodies swap faces and hair colours blend from black to white. There are many other echoes of a visual nature, such as the monk blessing himself when he sees the love-enslaved Baron Hugues scurrying past in pursuit of Dominique, mirrored in the Físico when the Friars bless themselves every time they think evil is rearing its ugly face. But these visual icons could never be considered a definite source. It is at the level of symbol and the underlying structures of the two works that we can find more convincing parallels.

An example of this is when the Devil makes his advances towards Anne and she shows her unrelenting resistance, sustained by her undying love for Gilles, a love that the Devil could never know. This same symbolism of the power of Love over Evil is repeated in the Físico when Urraca explains her love for the Physician and how the Devil is unable to know what real love is, his only pleasure being the Physician’s body not his soul: ‘porque tu vinhas ser nos meus braços o amor que ele não conhece, o prazer que ele não tem’ (p. 83). Similarly, the presence of evil in a feminine guise pervades both works: the dark side of Urraca, seen in her endless affairs with men who are both metaphorically and literally devoured, leads the Physician to believe she is a demonic figure, a man-eating witch (or what Jung would term the devouring Mother figure, a negative counterbalance to the Anima). This seems an obvious adaptation of the figure of Dominique who had never really loved any of her countless lovers (including Gilles), and after her death had become an all too willing servant of the Devil. Gilles, by contrast, whose soul is redeemed by his love for Anne, was recast by Sena to represent the positive side of the Physician as he gradually comes to recognize true human love in his relationship with Urraca. Whereas Carné showed the Devil attempting to wipe Renaud’s memory of his love for Anne, Sena allowed his hero to succumb to doubt and become a much more real and human character, a truer representation of the repression of the human condition under authoritarian control and its constant failure to escape the slavery of materialism. He is condemned to endure the torture of temptation until the day he finally uses his inborn powers to rebel and claim his right to freedom and justice. That is why there is an abiding sense of mistrust in the Physician’s mind when he asks Urraca how she could know him so deeply yet still feel sorry for the Devil: ‘E como sabes e como pensas tudo isso? Só porque me amas? Ou porque tu és ele mesmo?’ (p. 83). This lack of confidence in his ability to recognize evil is his immediate downfall, as armed men suddenly enter and he is carried away by the Inquisition.

Conversely, Gilles will confess to Anne that he has long belonged to the Devil and that life is all a trickster’s illusion, but he will quickly acknowledge her as his one true love: ‘Vous êtes pour moi tout l’amour du monde’. Nevertheless, at the very moment when he admits he truly loves her and, like Urraca and the Physician, considers their bodies to be fused as one: ‘un seul corps, un seul coeur, rien ne pourra nous séparer […] Anne, je vous aime: personne peut m’empêcher de vous aimer’), there is a sudden flash of lightning and the Devil appears on horseback (as the Black Knight, he arrived to combat Renaud’s resurrection as the White Knight, a duel of mythical forces that will be reflected by Sena in the confrontation of the white haired Physician and the dark Inquisitor Saltzburgo).

But it is not only the symbolic or visual elements of the film that are close parallels to the contents of Sena’s work. It was in the film’s structural techniques that Jorge de Sena clearly found creative inspiration.

The techniques used in the film to transport the viewer instantly from one space to another, to move back and forth between moments in time, or even freeze time, would certainly have attracted a writer like Jorge de Sena, with his relativistic, dialectic approach to portraying reality. They serve to convincingly dismantle the constructs of space and time, concepts which in our own consciousness function simultaneously and in parallel, yet can only normally be related sequentially when transferred to text or film, tied as they are to an essentially linear representation of existence. Many authors of Sena’s era were fascinated by the possibilities offered up by the new narrative medium of cinema, where dialogue as well as non-verbal expression and suggestive imagery were a principal means of conveying thought and feeling. Many writers now turned to dialogue to avoid subjective narratives and left meaning and emotion to the individual reader’s interpretation through the use of symbolic implication or suggestion. In a similar but contrasting vein, Jorge de Sena experimented with subtler possibilities much closer to the techniques of Carné by employing the devices of parallel and repeated events, together with parallel texts where conscious narrative statements are coupled to a character’s unconscious inner thoughts, so forcing the reader to continually ‘read between the lines’.

The interspersion of poetic songs throughout the film is mirrored by Sena’s use of strategically placed poems to break up the linear prose narrative and insert an extra dimension, as if he were using all the subtle qualities of poetry to paint a three dimensional picture. The songs of the film are used to echo the characters’ emotions and symbolically predict events: near the beginning Gilles sings a song (important enough to be translated by Sena in his talk) to enrapture Anne and make her fall in love; the song tells of an archer musician who uses his bow as a harp, wounding the lover forever with the burning arrows of his songs. This is similar to Sena’s ballad in which an amorous knight storms the tower of a lonely princess and mortally wounds her with his phallic lance. Both ballad and song symbolically portend the pains of love to come. Later, the Devil too tries to gain possession of Anne with his love, but she remembers a song her nurse used to sing: ‘je pensais d’un chanson que chantait ma notrice’. The song echoes the poem, Doce Amigo, that the Physician recalls his nurse singing: ‘a sua ama, com a voz dela, cantava-lhe um velho cantar’ (p. 51). (This is itself a double intertextual reference to the cantiga da ama, à maneira de solau from Bernardim Ribeiro’s Menina e Moça, together with other lines reminiscent of the eclogues). Just as the Devil fails to subjugate Anne, the song heard by the Physician follows his conversation with Urraca where she declares the opposite: ‘Eu não te vou prender […] És inteiramente livre’ (p. 50). Sena never repeats exactly the same situations: the underlying parallels are always subtly present, however, since what we are witnessing is of course artistic adaptation, not plagiarism. A final song by Gilles comes when he is imprisoned in a dark dungeon and he sings of their youth now lost in the dark, far from the light of life and the pleasures of love: ‘notre jeunesse est morte/ et nos amours aussi’. Although not entirely equivalent, the mundus inversus theme of youth and death is nevertheless to be found in Sena’s goliardic song of revolt at the end of the novella, in his rimance das rosas de sangue e leite: ‘Morra pais e morram filhos/maila toda a filharia/Ai rosas de sangue e leite/que só a terra bebia’ (p. 125) (itself reminiscent of the rebellious tavern song in the Carmina Burana, a favourite musical work of Sena: ‘bibit puer, bibit canus/bibit presul et decanus’).

One of many parallel and repeated events is the meeting between Gilles and Anne in a flowery glade, where she offers him refreshing water from a fountain: it is here that Gilles feels free to show true love for her and where they are most happy. Later, when the Devil has had Gilles arrested and thrown into jail, Gilles sees a vision of Anne in his cell and they both return in his dream to the fountain. At the end of the film Anne, having duped the Devil into freeing Gilles and now in mortal danger, asks for one more chance to return to the fountain: ‘laissez-moi retourner une dernière fois près de cette fontaine ou j’étais heureuse’. All this is converted by Sena into the three occurrences where his Physician will return to the locus amoenus of the glade by the riverbank, where the refreshing water cleanses his body of the Devil’s lust and where his passion for the maidens also threatens to corrupt the purity of the glade. Each time he has to use the magic of his cap to reverse time and attempt to return everything to its previous pristine condition. Although the two sequences are not identical, the function is the same: to preserve a place where love can remain pure and safe from evil.

Another repeated location of love and convergence is the Rose Garden: a locus amoenus symbolizing the Garden of Eden, in the film it is used by the Devil to bring base love into the scenario and corrupt the meaning of true love. Gilles invites Anne to meet him there and, although declaring his own true love for her, shows her a world of cross-matched lovers and their abiding sadness. Dominique seduces Renaud there and the Devil who has fallen for Anne tries to use the location to seduce her too. There is a scene towards the end where the Devil appears in several places at the same time, speaking to Anne in her room while simultaneously appearing down below in the garden. She counters this magic by saying she too can be in her room while transported with Gilles to the fountain if she so wishes. This playing with space and time by fountains or rose bushes was adapted by Sena in his references to the rosas de sangue e de leite, a leitmotif running throughout the book to symbolize the duel between good and evil, passion and true love. The appearance of the rose at the end of the book, just like the hearts still beating within the stone statues at the end of the film, both symbolize the escape of the pair of lovers from surrounding evil. Each points to love’s eternal existence, the potential for another cyclical journey in the spiral of time and space from a single point of departure, the life force that evil cannot erase at the heart of the rose mandala of the world.

One final repetitive device that Carné uses to show the invisible and ambiguous presence of evil is the insertion of characters at several key moments who either giggle hysterically or cackle wickedly: Dominique, the shadowy female in man’s clothes, giggles as she seduces Renaud in the rose garden and she continually laughs wickedly; the fairground freaks steal into Gilles and Dominique’s room at night and cackle as they creep about; when the Devil himself appears he cackles with glee but is furious when the courtiers laugh with him (it is after all his own ubiquitous ‘call-sign’– ‘a rúbrica sonora do demônio’ as Gilda Santos puts it [9]). Ironically, it is Anne who will have the last laugh. Sena uses exactly the same device but much more subtly: the ‘riso casquinado’, which we hear from both the invisible devil of onanism and his seductive lover Urraca, is employed as a warning sign for the Physician that his spiritual integrity is being breached — for him, however, it is a means of confronting the ambiguities of his own shadow personality and the negative female side within his anima, as he moves forward through a process of individuation to a lasting union with Urraca, thus forming a bond of love that can never again be broken by the Devil.

A scene demonstrating Carné’s innovative genius occurs when he uses slow motion camerawork to literally freeze time. Alongside this, at the level of dialogue, he uses the repetition of phrases to signal the suspension and restarting of time and motion. It is this section of the film that provides the closest link with the textual experimentation of Sena’s novella and which must have so impressed him at the time. In the work of both artists it consists of not one sequence of repetitions but several which are intertwined.

Just before Gilles begins to strum his lute for the start of the dance, Renaud remarks to Anne that she seems distracted: ‘vous paraissez songée, Anne’. As the music and dance begin, so time comes to a stop, characters will form their cross pairs and metamorphose in gender and appearance, the whole interlude being centred on the rose garden. When the music finishes and time recommences, Renaud repeats the parenthetic remark to signal the moment where time was suspended, but with a slight modification: ‘vous paraissez bien songée’. This parallelistic device, reminiscent of the cantigas, is made more complex by further repeated phrases: when Dominique pairs off with Renaud in the rose garden interlude she is asked, ‘Qui êtes-vous?’, an allusion to her gender change; the same question is put to her by Baron Hugues in a later episode where she tries to seduce him. But it is in the rose garden scene that the clearest repetition of phrases is employed, again with subtle modifications: when Gilles pairs off with Anne he declares: ‘dès que je vous ai vue, j’ai compris pourquoi je t’ai venu de si loin. J’ai remercié le ciel de m’avoir conduit jusqu’à vous.’ Anne will echo his words with: ‘dès que je vous ai vu, j’ai compris pourquoi vous veniez pour moi.’ Meanwhile in another corner of the rose garden Dominique repeats Gilles’s lines in the feminine as she seduces Renaud: ‘dès que je vous ai vu, j’ai compris pourquoi je t’ai venu de si loin. J’ai remercié le ciel de m’avoir conduite jusqu’á vous.’ Carné makes the parallels even more intricate by repeating the whole phrase one more time in the incident where Dominique seduces Baron Hugues and prompts the previous link question: ‘Qui êtes vous?’.

One last phrase that illustrates Carné’s use of parallel but modified text to link his scenes comes when Gilles and Anne are in the meadow by the fountain: Anne asks Gilles ‘s’il est possible qu’un être peut s’appartenir entièrement à l’autre être’; later, Gilles will ask her ‘Croyez-vous, Anne, qu’un être peut s’appartenir entièrement à un autre être, sans être malheureux?’ to which her answer is ‘Je suis heureuse’. The significance of the variation in the question and its bold reply is seen in the fact that the question is placed parenthetically around the interpolated scene of the hunting trip, where Dominique stirs up the jealousy between her two male victims, hopelessly ensnaring them in the love trap which will make them both miserable and ultimately lead to death.

There is a key passage in Jorge de Sena’s Físico (already quoted by many as an example of the textual parallelisms within the work) which uses similar techniques to Carné and centres around the ‘gorro’ and its powers of transformation. The fairly long passage, beginning ‘Pousou-o cuidadosamente a seu lado […]’, appears right at the beginning of part I (pp. 16-17) and is repeated again with slight modifications in part VI (pp. 80-82) where the cap is put to its final test and fails to return time and space to the exact moment and point of departure. Around this passage there is a parenthetic description of Urraca’s eyes showing the pain of having to forget him. The opening section reads: ‘Ele fitou-a longamente e viu nos olhos dela, duríssimos, a dor de o não ter conhecido e o grande amor de o querer vivo. E fechando os olhos, pediu.’ The repetition actually runs on from the enclosed passage as if there were no transition: ‘Debruçou-se mais, os olhos da cabeça abriram-se e…’. It then picks up from the same moment when the cap had been invoked: ‘os olhos dela, duríssimos, tão duros como as unhas que sentia nos ombros, ainda o fitavam na dor de o não ter nunca conhecido e no grande amor que o queria vivo, mesmo não o tendo conhecido nunca’ [10]. What perhaps has not been noticed before is that this central passage between the parenthetic phrases is in turn a collection of other phrases repeated from key moments and the passage acts as a synthesis of events captured within another dimension of time: the ‘riso casquinado’ of the Devil is repeated together with the phrase describing the Physician running his hands all over his body after the Devil’s moment of passion, but this time evil is taking over as he enjoys the feeling of being sullied ‘levantou-se, sacudiu-se, passou as mãos pelo corpo sujo, e sentiu a volúpia de estar sujo assim’. These repeats of opening scenes are then closely followed by variations on the arrival in part II at the white castle: ‘Numa curva do rio, por trás de um cabeço, um castelo apareceu, de pedra muito branca. Que castelo seria? Mas o castelo ainda estava longe, e o cavalo cansado, e já anoitecia quando chegou à ponte levadiça, que encontrou descida.’ This scene is then followed by his encounter later in part II with Urraca in her chamber where the long description of her body is repeated: ‘Porém só o rosto, de olhos fechados, com os negro cabelos espalhados[…] as faces sem cor e sumidas nas olheiras fundas’. The whole encapsulated passage can therefore be seen as the axis around which the structure of the work and the two halves revolve. It marks the point where the power of magic fails and the man himself must show an inner strength and self-knowledge as he meets the power of evil in the guise of the Inquisition head on. It also marks the point at which he must rebut the doubts cast in his mind by the Devil about Urraca and, just like Anne, replace them with an undying faith in love and a total rejection of death.

The unsettling ambiguities which run through Sena’s portrait of the Physician both in his initial love of his own body and later that of Urraca can also be traced to the influence of Carné’s film, as both director and author deal in the dualities of magic and superstition, the harlequin masquerade, the trans-gender tradition of the stage or the upside-down world of Carnival itself: they both use this device wonderfully to point up the double-edged nature of their central allegories. Just like in Sena’s charming Christmas story illustrating the duplicity of the Devil and the reason why Santa Claus wears a white beard, we see that life is a question of reading between the lines and learning to recognize which Santa is the real man and which is actually the Devil in disguise. The real test as presented to us by Sena, nevertheless, is to recognize that we can all possess the two forces within ourselves and that our personal life is a question of finding a balance between them (the Jungian individuation process confronting the Self with its Shadow and other archetypes). Thus both film and narrative contain a double allegory, one reflecting the social dimension and one the personal. Both are a fascinating study in the psychologies of their several characters and the interplay between them. Both in fact are also a study on the psyche of their age and the battle being waged at different levels within society, the individual’s wish for freedom and society’s own yearning for common justice: human love allied to humanism. The central metaphor that also unites them is that of Sena’s ‘metamorphosis’: the eternal flame of love and its abiding power is represented in the film by the transformation of the lovers Gilles and Anne into stone statues whose hearts continue to beat, and in the book by the androgynous fusing of the bodies of the Physician and Urraca in an enactment of the Alchemical Wedding and their release from the grave in the antinomy of the red and white roses of love. At the root of all this magic is the idea of Free Will: the two minstrels of Carné each choose a different route as they wield their magic powers, be it through tricks of physical transformations or the enchantment of songs of love, whether they ultimately acquiesce to or rebel against the Devil’s powers. The Physician mimics both and shows the inner turmoil of a mind torn apart by doubts sown by a devil within, now going one way now another, as maidens become seductive goddesses and Urraca (as her symbolic name suggests) is transformed from white princess to man-eating black witch. In the film Carné can use visual techniques to show physical reality and then switch to the inner thoughts and dreams of his characters, while Sena has to use parallel texts and alternate fonts aligned on the physical page to represent the outer conscious words of his characters with their inner unconscious feelings. While Carné uses Renaud as the man of doubt who is redeemed and Dominique as the inveterate Devil in woman’s guise, Sena encapsulates both within the Physician and builds a much more complex character. Carné uses the tricks of frame transitions to transform a disfigured girl in the rose garden into a beautiful maiden, whereas Sena transfers the Physician’s face on to Urraca’s corpse and eventually on to all the Friars, including the Devil-conjuring Salzburgo himself. Carné ridicules the despotic figure of the Devil both in his ludicrous and fawning infatuation with Anne and through her own delicious wiles as she tricks him into freeing Renaud, thus turning the tables on him by using the tricks of his very own trade in lies — the Devil had never imagined that a woman so pure could have tricked him by lying and he is devastated. Sena ridicules the dictatorial figure of Frei Salzburgo in his grovelling, half-naked antics as he uses all his demonic powers to conjure the Devil to appear, only to have the Devil then point out to him that he has obviously never looked at himself in the mirror and realized how ridiculous he actually is (a masterly passage of withering satire which effectively shows the Devil mocking himself!).

All of these examples I believe amply illustrate Sena’s skill in metamorphosing key elements from the film, adapting them to his own medium of the written word and recreating another artistic rendering of the same structures, meanings and intentions, all in another more modern era yet under the same repressive shadow of a sinister regime. It is clear now, I believe, that Sena saw an immediate use for structure and parallel techniques in Carné’s film that would harmonize well with similar structures and techniques in the Portuguese lyric tradition and so allow him to create a work of similar artistic beauty while fulfilling the allegorical role of producing a powerful personal critique of a repressive age and its devastating effects on humanity.

Returning, however, to Sobre Cinema and the Físico, one must obviously tread very carefully when trying to reveal and substantiate intertextual references: I am nevertheless convinced that Sena was being as ironic and sarcastic as ever when he purported to give advice to his listeners (his words are merely a well-rehearsed form of ‘double-talk’ intended to outwit the censors) in a talk given in 1951 (and already published in1946) where he warns his audience not to extract too much social morality from allegorical fairy stories. This talk discusses another film that has close parallels with the Físico, La Belle et la Bête: ‘Mas desenganai-vos de querer extrair de um conto de fadas qualquer alegoria de moral prática, socialmente válida. Os contos de fadas não ensinam o que se deve ou não deve fazer. Ensinam, sim, que para infringir quaisquer regras é preciso possuir uma protecção especial, um talismã, cujo uso é sempre perigosíssimo não só para quem o utiliza como para aqueles que a esse rodeiam. E assim a lição desses contos é uma lição de poesia — um aviso aos poetas, que manejam às vezes descuidadamente um perigoso talismã; aos amadores de poesia, que com esse talismã se fascinam; e aos falsos amadores que o cobiçam para inconfessáveis fins. Ora as lições de poesia não se aprendem — vivem-se, ou aceita-se que outros as vivam, como sabem ou como podem’ (pp. 76-77).

Sena in his guise of Physician had to learn to use his own talisman wisely, that all-powerful magic given to him by his (god)mother. He was initiated into its potential dangers not only risky to himself but also to his fellow man, and he paid dearly for not recognizing the envy of those ‘physicians’ who would seek to bring about his perdition. Nevertheless his faith in human love could not be broken and eventually he attained his freedom and was reunited with his love, albeit through a metaphorical death and psychic journey.

For once again that Master Trickster, Jorge de Sena, has put into the words of this talk on cinema the same message he disseminated throughout his entire work, be it poetry, prose, or criticism. Just like love, freedom and justice, poetry in its widest sense (and the Físico is essentially an extended poem [11], just as I suppose one might argue that Les Visiteurs is an extended song) is always there to be discovered all around us, especially in the (re)creativity of man’s own self-expression, and we have only to look beneath the surfaces of the world around us to extract poetry from everyday life, to relive it and recreate it from whatever elements we happen to find it in. If not, to adapt the words of another famous poet whom Sena greatly admired, we are destined to spend our lives as mere ‘cadáveres adiados que procriam’, lifeless and materialistic beings serving no useful purpose to humanity or posterity whatsoever.




[1] This and all further page references are taken from the 1977 edition: Jorge de Sena, O Físico Prodigioso (Lisbon: Edições 70, 1977).

[2] See amongst others: Harvey L. Sharrer, ‘Temas e motivos medievais em O Físico Prodigioso’ in O Corpo e os Signos: ensaios sobre O Físico Prodigioso de Jorge de Sena, ed. by Maria Alzira Seixo (Lisbon:Comunicação, 1990), pp. 85-98. On the Christ myth see Francisco Cota Fagundes, ‘O artista com um malho: uma leitura d’ O Físico Prodigioso’, in Studies on Jorge de Sena, ed. by Harvey L. Sharrer and Frederick G. Williams (Santa Barbara: UCSB/bandanna Books, 1981). On Faust see Jorge Fazenda Lourenço, O Brilho dos Sinais – estudos sobre Jorge de Sena (Porto: Edições Caixotim, 2002), pp. 117-123; and Orlando Nunes de Amorim, ‘O Físico Prodigioso’, a novela poética de Jorge de Sena (Araraquara: Centro de Estudos Portgueses ‘Jorge de Sena’. UNESP, 1966).

[3] Jorge Fazenda Lourenço, O Brilho dos Sinais, p. 17.

[4] Emmanoel dos Santos, ‘Jorge de Sena e o Cinema’, Boletim do SEPESP, 6 (1995), 145-154 (p. 150).

[5] Jorge de Sena, Sobre Cinema, ed. by M. de Sena and M.S. Fonseca (Lisbon: Cinemateca Portuguesa, 1988).

[6] [accessed 27 December 2003]

[7] Bernard Simon, [accessed 27 December 2003]

[8] see section IV of the poem A Paz: ‘e não distingue o Livro de Horas do Duque de Berry’ from the collection Fidelidade in Poesia-II (Lisbon: Moraes Editores, 1978), p. 43.

[9] Gilda Santos, ‘Para invocar o demônio, à luz d’O Físico Prodigioso’, Estudos Portugueses e Africanos (Campinas), 24 (1994), 19-34 (p. 21).

[10] Here and in the following quotations the italics are my own to indicate where there is an exact repetition. Further details of these and other results from a concordance of the Físico will be available in my forthcoming translation and commentary to the work, The Mighty Physician of Love.

[11] Orlando Nunes de Amorim, ‘O Físico Prodigioso’, a novela poética de Jorge de Sena (Araraquara: Centro de Estudos Portugueses ‘Jorge de Sena’, UNESP, 1966)


[*] I should like to acknowledge in the writing of this article my gratitude to the British Academy who generously gave me a grant to visit Jorge de Sena’s house and library in Santa Barbara, and also to Mécia de Sena who showed me an even greater kindness and generosity of spirit.

[**]  Mike Harland é professor da Universidade de Glasgow.