Interview by Zac Platt.
Parisian comedy The Gilded Cage, the semi-autobiographical comedy from first-time writer/director Ruben Alves, has been a sleeper hit in Europe, becoming the number one grossing film of the year in Portugal (beating out Thor: The Dark World, Gravity and World War Z) and winning the People’s Choice Award For Best Film at the 2013 European Film Awards.
The Gilded CageÂ is the story of Maria and JosÃ© Ribeiro, a hard-working Portuguese couple who’s dream of returning to their homeland comes true when JosÃ© learns he has inherited his family’s winery. More than a comedy about Portuguese culture, The Gilded Cage is a film about taking control, living your own life and not letting others shape it for you. We got a chance to sit down with Ruben to speak about the film and where its success has taken him.
The Reel Word: Were you surprised by how successful The Gilded Cage has been, given it’s your first feature film?
Ruben Alves: Sure. Yes. When you make your first movie you don’t know anything. It’s like you’re incognito. So everything that’s happening is like a bonus. The most surprising thing for me about this adventure is the sociological part. [Journalists] invite me a lot to talk about the sociological parts of the movie, about immigration, new immigration and Portuguese immigration all around the world. And I never thought about that, you know, about this impact after the success of the movie. So I’m very happy.
The Reel Word: Do you think you need an understanding of Portuguese culture to enjoy this film, or do you think it speaks more universally?
Ruben Alves: I’m talking about Portuguese immigrants in France, but I think every immigrant can feel and understand the movie because it’s talking about Love. It’s about how parents love their children and how they give us a better life than they have. It’s about thinking of the famous day that you think “OK. I’m going back to my country. To my place with all my roots and origin”. And it can happen with everyone, even with an Australian. If you live in Canberra, and you come to work in Sydney for 30 years, you say, “One day I will go back to Canberra”. But when will you go back? You don’t know, because after you’re in Sydney you grow up and you make a family. So I think it’s universal, you can be touched by the movie because we are all immigrants, we are always moving now. The Portuguese, they feel the movie very deep with all the little details that they love, but the main feelings everyone can [understand].
The Reel Word: You could really feel the authenticity to the Ribeiro family. Were they based on people from your own family or were they more composite characters?
Ruben Alves: It’s a mix. The parents are very close to my parents. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s inspired a lot. It’s about my family, neighbours, friends and my observations about the community. It’s a mix of everything. It was very important for me to be authentic. You know, when I’m thinking with my head most of the time, I say, “OK. Stop thinking with your head, think with your heart”, because it’s my community so I know it well. And I’m doing this movie with love. With a lot of patience. So stop thinking too much, just do what you feel.
The Reel Word: Before this most of your experience was as an actor. Did you just want to tell this story, or is being a director what you’ve been working towards?
Ruben Alves: For sure. When you’ve made one you can’t stop. It’s impossible. But I want to continue both [directing and acting] because the thing that’s most important for me is creating. Directing is rich; you focus on everything. You have to think of everything. It’s very rich, so I like it so much. Being an actor, we’re talking about desire. Waiting about for a director or producer who desires you, wants you. When you can exchange good things with a director or producer it’s good, but when you’re just waiting and doing a character you don’t feel and going home– I prefer to direct it for sure. So now I accept only what I really want to do. For example, I’m just finishing the Yves Saint Laurent movie which is going to be released in France in January. It was very good because I like the universe and Saint Laurent’s life. It’s very interesting. The actors and the directors are very interesting so I was very happy to be in this movie.
The Reel Word: Do you think this has helped you as an actor, seeing that other perspective?
Ruben Alves: Yeah, maybe both [ways]. It helps me to be an actor when shooting because it’s about feeling. I think my shooting was very smooth because I’m an actor too, so all the actors were very cool. “You want to do that? OK, show me what you mean”. I created a family. I always say to my crew we made the movie together, we are like family. I’m not alone in this boat you know? I directed the boat, but we are all together because I think, really, humans can do great things together, not alone. So it helped me [both] ways.
The Reel Word: Something I noticed was that a lot of the social stigma seemed to be coming from the Portuguese characters themselves, particularly with the relationship between Paula and Charles. Do you think the social stigma is really apparent in France, or do you think it’s a barrier they put up themselves because they are defensive
Ruben Alves: It’s more like Paula is the new generation. She’s a young lawyer and she is very assuming. She can’t find her origin yet, so this character is very complex in the movie because [of how the new generation] look to their parents who come and work a lot in a new country. They work so much and are used a little bit. That’s why I wanted to talk with this character. Paula says, “Ok, wake up now, stop being–“, not ridiculed, but almost. That’s the thing that’s true about the Portuguese community. I think they are very discreet, always working. But I think we can laugh at ourselves. Portuguese bring the stigma maybe. But you know, for example, the scene of the French and Portuguese dinner? They both come with clichÃ©s and stigma. French about the Portuguese and the Portuguese about the French. It’s a mix of stigma everywhere but I think it’s very pleasant to just make fun and to have humour to what we are. The Portuguese population is very deep, so it’s good to have something light and comedic.
The Reel Word: Amongst the cast, Rita Blanco as Maria was the standout to me. I wanted to talk about the scene just after her son pretended she was just the concierge at the party, where she was making him breakfast the next morning. To me that was her defining moment, seeing just how easy it was for her to forgive him. Can you tell me a little about what you wanted to say with that scene?
Ruben Alves: It’s a very important scene. I wanted to show the dignity of this woman. It’s very hard [for her]. Her son doesn’t recognise her, but she accepts because she knows. She’s his mother so she can understand what he feels. She doesn’t say “No problem, it’s OK”, because it’s bad to do [what he did]. But the son feels so bad because she said nothing. Not a word to him. I think it’s stronger to do that than say, “What did you do?! I am your mother!” She’s like, “OK, you want to do that? I understand you, but it’s not good”. With this scene [there’s] no words. I think it’s stronger. And the dignity of this woman is in all of the movie; the boss abuses her and she’s still always doing everything for everyone. And at the end of the movie I think she’s very elegant because she gives a life lesson to her boss. I think that’s what I wanted to give to my main characters. We can be workers, but we can be elegant and have dignity.
The Reel Word: I really liked that the bosses weren’t complete antagonists, you could understand their motivations. They just grew accustomed to taking advantage of these people. Do you think they are antagonists, or do you think Maria and JosÃ© are to blame for the situation they find themselves in?
Ruben Alves: Yes. Really, we are in the situation because we created this. [Portuguese] just assume the work and they give this to their children. She says in a scene, “I wanted to be a good concierge. I just wanted to be a good one and work and do my best.” In the movie I have a sentence that’s very important; Trop bon, trop con (French for someone who is ‘a soft touch’). It’s something I heard a lot. My mum would say, “Trop bon, trop con. I’m so silly because I can’t say no.” And that’s the problem with a lot of people. A lot of people say to me, “I recognise myself in this movie because all my life I can’t say no. And it’s a problem for me. I’m always “OK” with my Boss.” And in the movie it shows that. I’m talking about human selfishness also. You give to the bosses and so they take. If you have a habit that’s good, why would you stop this great habit? Because she gives too much? She decided to give too much. I think it’s something that’s very Portuguese, to want to help a lot. Maybe it’s historic, I don’t know. And after you give too much and there’s no return you say “why”? But that’s the law of life. It’s complicated and humans can be selfish. In this movie we are talking about the length humans give and receive. In the scene where JosÃ© slaps his daughter Paula, she says things very important to the movie. She says; “Maybe you like this. You work, work, work. Always complaining because all the people abuse you, but maybe you like this. So stop being like that!” The daughter feels so much, looking at her parents always working and being abused a little bit.
The Reel Word: Talking about that scene, I really liked that you didn’t fall into the trap a lot of comedies do and allowed your characters to be flawed, but still inherently good. Do you think incorporating small flaws makes the characters more human, and therefore more believably “good” in the eyes of the audience?
Ruben Alves: The thing is, the characters are submissive, but at the same time they are not silly. When I wrote the script the French actress Chantal Lauby called me and said, “Ruben, I haven’t read a script like that for a long, long time. That’s because it’s very human, it’s very simple and I cried. Reading it I cried because it’s rare nowadays to be just– good. A good person.” A lot of times journalists in France say “in your movie you don’t have bad people, it’s very soft” and I say “why do you want to have [bad people]?” I wanted my movie to have good people. Maybe nowadays it’s not fashionable to be. When you say, “ohh he’s a cool guy, he’s very nice”, it’s almost to say an idiot. Like he’s silly. To be respected nowadays you need to be strong, a little bit bad. But in my movie I don’t want to have bad people. I think it’s hopeful to have people with good simple values.
Australian readers looking to see The Gilded Cage can find screenings and purchase tickets over at Palace Films.
You can also check out our review for The Gilded Cage right HERE.