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Portugal’s Political History: Professor Patricia Vieira Analyzes Propaganda Films

Professor Vieira is originally from Portugal. (Photo: Roland Dimaya)

By Kara Burritt

Professor Patricia Vieira’s research entails immersing herself in books and films with names such as The Spell of the Empire, Death and the Maiden, and Memoirs of Prison. Such ominous titles preview the tone of these works of fiction, which portray human struggle under oppressive leadership. Vieira specifically focuses on the subtle modes in which artists convey this struggle, yet recently she has shifted to study the manipulative works that once served the opposite function: pro-government propaganda.
Originally from Portugal, Vieira, an assistant professor in Georgetown’s department of Spanish and Portuguese, closely analyzes the films and literature of both Portugal and Brazil. Each country passed periods of the twentieth century under conservative regimes—Portugal under the authoritarian rule of Salazar, and Brazil under the nationalist rule of Vargas and, later, under a military dictatorship. Moreover, the nations’ common language and historical ties, with Brazil having been an early colony of Portugal, give Vieira a unique perspective of two countries’ responses to modern dictatorship.

Vieira notes, however, that many countries with similar histories process the traumatic events of oppression in this same way: through art. “Someone has to give voice to these feelings and memories that are in the society but do not always come through in the political discourses because they’re uncomfortable,” said Vieira.

In her earlier research, focusing on the film and literature produced after the downfall of the Salazar and Vargas regimes, Vieira has found that emotions and memories often manifest themselves in symbolic motifs. For example, the themes of vision and blindness—both physical and in political terms—are often used to reflect the experience of oppressed citizens.

Vieira’s current research is for a book that will analyze the creative works produced during these political regimes, rather than afterwards. Often heavily censored, these works can reflect the experience of citizens under dictatorship by demonstrating the regime’s pervasive self-promotion. She has begun her research on state-funded propaganda films of Portugal, which aimed to foster citizen support of Salazar’s government and its goals. Staged with fictional plots as leisure viewing, the movies’ specific agendas were often transparent.

“I tried to read them as a symptom for what was happening at the time, for the whole edifice of ideological propaganda of the regime and how the regime tried to portray itself,” Vieira explained.

For example, many Portuguese natives contested the country’s colonization in Africa as unnecessary. Thus the government, wanting to encourage both public backing and territory occupation, funded propaganda films that positively portrayed the colonies. One film in particular, Spell of the Empire, depicts a Portuguese man who had immigrated to America as a child with his family. When he decides to gain American citizenship, his parents urge him to visit his homeland before changing citizenship. The film follows him to Portugal, where he finds nothing redeeming. Then, however, he travels to a Portuguese colony in Africa, falls in love with a colonist, and decides to relocate there. The film’s pro-colonization ideology, underlying the protagonist’s story, matches that of the Salazar regime.

Vieira also plans to explore other themes of Portuguese propaganda films. Much propaganda demonized Communism while other films attempted to associate the regime’s beginnings with religious occurrences held as sacred in the Catholic Church. “They worked to justify their existence as a political regime,” stated Vieira.

As she works on this project, Vieira continues to study literature and film that attempt to work through the trauma of a nation under totalitarian rule. She layers analysis of such literature and film into the courses she teaches at Georgetown, which include Portuguese language and Portuguese, Brazilian and Lusophone African literature and film. Vieira regards popular literature and film as a form in which artists express the uniqueness of a culture. However, she is quick to note that such works often have universal value, as well, and can appeal to a larger audience.

“I don’t want to make the films or the books I teach just examples for a certain culture,” explained Vieira. “They have value in themselves even outside that cultural milieu.”

It is with this perspective that Vieira organized a Brazilian and Portuguese film conference held at Georgetown in late March. “Portuguese and Brazilian Film Cinematic Theory and Practice Conference,” began with screenings of a contemporary Portuguese film, Trance, and a recent Brazilian film, Blindness. Then filmmakers as well as several scholars of film came together to discuss the cinema of the two countries.

Vieira appreciated the chance to offer the university community different perspectives on Portuguese and Brazilian film from scholars in the field, as well as the chance to speak personally with film professionals. And with sponsorship from both the university and local Portuguese and Brazilian organizations, the conference drew attendees from around the region. Vieira asked her own film students to attend the conference to engage with authorities on the topics covered in class.   

Whether it is bridging the gap between film and literature, or finding the similarities between Brazil and Portugal, Vieira’s research deals with various dichotomies. The distinction of her current research is to focus on resistance literature and censored art of the past, as well as on retrospective works that trigger a reflection upon history.

“When one deals with this sort of text it is important to see when the work arose,” said Vieira, “Whether they are reflecting on what’s happening now, or what has happened in the past as a sort of working through.”

As Portugal and Brazil develop distinct film industries and cultures that approach movies in modern ways, from the independent films of Portugal to the popular successes of Brazil, understanding the history of these societies through work such as Vieira’s is becoming increasingly important.
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Insight: Professor Patricia Vieira
Q. What is your favorite book? A. Spinosa's "Ethics"
Student Q & A: Luiz Felipe das Neves
Luiz Felipe das Neves is completing his senior year at Georgetown with a double major in Portuguese and Political Economy. In his free time, he plays intramural soccer for the university.
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