I watched this movie as a last resistance to silence that descended around midnight after the honey-coloured day of an early autumn went to sleep. Sun is always ripest at this time of year, just before to shrivel into the rigidity of winter. Like a women crossing the bridge between the youth and old age. The light within her is the most reflective just before to go out.
There is a beautiful bridge in the city of Bern in one of the first scenes of the movie. A young woman in a red coat is standing on its railing ready to throw herself into the dark waters below, under the persistent autumn’s rain. Until a middle age professor of ancient languages, wearing old-fashion glasses and in a habit of playing chess with himself before to leave for school every morning, drops his briefcase and pulls her down. The teacher is Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons).
She helps him to gather papers that have spilled from his briefcase and they walk to his school. He takes her to his class and let her sit in the corner while he teaches as he usually does. But she does not wait for the class to finish so they can talk. She quietly leaves the classroom leaving her red coat behind.
Concerned, Raimund grabs the coat and runs after her, but in vain. He checks her pockets for identification. All he finds is a small book, a memoir of sorts, by Amadeu do Prado. It is stamped with the address of the bookstore, so he goes there. The bookseller remembers the girl’s purchasing this obscure book and, as he leafs through it, a train ticket to Lisbon falls out. The train is, in fact, leaving in 15 minutes. Confused and doubtful, Raimund rushes to the station, but the woman is nowhere in sight. At the last moment he decides to use the ticket himself, and during the journey he reads the book.
It was a decision that will change his life forever as it sometimes happens when inexplicable events found us, and without a warning or a prelude, alter our reality in a way we could have never imagined.
Some call it a chance. Others divine intervention. I settle for mystery since I believe that not all things need to be explained. Or given a name or cause or origin. The most important ones just need to be felt.
Reading the book, Raimund found that Amadeu do Prado lived in Lisbon and that the thoughts, fears and dilemmas he expressed in the book fascinate him. Once he reaches Lisbon, Raimund is determined to find Amadeu not only in hope that this will lead him to the woman in a red coat, but also to speak with the writer.
He finds Amadeu’s home, where his sister, Adriana, welcomes Raimund. She also gives the impression her brother still lives there. Raimund learns that Amadeu was a doctor, and that only 100 copies of his book were printed. When Raimund asks what happened to their father, Adriana’s reaction is hostile. As Raimund is leaving, the elderly maid tells him that he can find Amadeu in the town’s cemetery. Raimund finds the tomb: Amadeu died in 1974.
In the street, a bicyclist runs into Raimund and smashes his glasses. While obtaining new glasses from a local optician, Mariana, Raimund narrates his experiences. When he returns to collect the glasses, Mariana tells Raimund her uncle knew Amadeu de Prado well and is willing to talk to Raimund.
Raimund and Mariana both go to the nursing home where her uncle João Eça resides, and Raimund learns João and Amadeu were both in the resistance against the Salazar dictatorship. João, who dislikes the atmosphere of nursing home and remains fond or smoking cigarettes, tells the story in a serious of flashbacks. His hands, once subtle enough to play piano, are disfigured by the torture he endured under Mendez, one of the most notorious agents of Salazar regime.
Over dinner Raimund tells Mariana about his life and the wife that left him five years ago because she found him boring. Mariana tells Raimund that he is not boring.
Later, Raimund visits the priest who taught and later buried Amadeu de Prado. The priest explains that Amadeu, a smart young boy from an aristocratic background, befriended Jorge O’Kelly, another bright boy in the school though of lowly means. The boys bonded through their love for knowledge, particularly the philosophical and political knowledge not permitted under Salazar. Amadeu gave a graduation speech that reflected his contempt for the regime, much to the chagrin of his father, a well-respected judge.
Raimund returns to Adriana and asks for her side of the story, and then he revisits João to obtain more information.
Raimund learns that Amadeu died of an aneurysm, which he knew he had, but had not told Adriana about. As a doctor, Amadeu never refused a patient, and when Mendez, a powerful member of the Salazar regime, called ‘the Butcher of Lisbon’, was brought to Amadeu’s clinic, he saved the man’s life. Amadeu’s friends were shocked by this, especially Jorge, who at that time was already in the resistance. Later, Amadeu confronted Jorge and declared that he too would join the resistance. João, young man at the time, voiced his concern that Amadeu is joining resistance out of guilt for saving Mendez’s life. However, as an old man talking to Raimund, he simply observes that Amadeu was ‘too soft for resistance’.
Resistances and revolutions cannot be executed by those who resist killing their own if necessary; it is for that reason that ‘every revolution devours its children’ (Jacques Mallet du Pan).
Jorge introduced Amadeu to João and to Estefânia, a beautiful woman who helped the resistance by memorizing people’s names and contact information, and with whom Jorge was deeply in love.
But the moment Amadeu’s and Estefânia’s eyes met, they were powerfully drawn to each other. When Estefânia’s asked Amadeu whether he could kill his own father if he becomes danger to resistance, Amadeu cannot answer. He also cannot let himself love Estefânia because of his life-long friendship with Jorge. But Jorge did find out and was crushed by discovery. His first thought was to kill Estefânia and he takes João’s gun for that purpose.
The night Amadeu and Estefânia decide to escape together, Jorge confronted them with the gun pointed at Estefânia. But Amadeu persuded him to drop the gun and they drove to safety to Spain.
When Raimund find Jorge, he is an old man who still works in the same pharmacy Amadeu set up for him after they graduated from University. He still lives alone and enjoys his drink. He also lives lights on at night in his old pharmacy, just like he did all those years ago when they were young and plotting resistance.
It is Jorge who tells Raimund that Estefânia is still alive and living in Spain as a history teacher. Raimund goes to visit her and she tells him that Amadeu did manage to smuggle her over the border in the boot of his Mercedes and with the assistance of Menzel who felt in debt to Amadeu for saving his life.
They travelled together all night and Amadeu was ‘hungry for me, for life, for everything’. His love for her was so intense, so all encompassing that nothing was left, not a thought or a breath. By the time the morning came, she asked him to drop her off at her friends. Few weeks later Amadeu died. She never stopped feeling that she killed him. Raimund explained that Amadeu had aneurysm and knew about it. It had nothing to do with her. He left her his book.
There are indeed times when the love we feel is so powerful and passionate, so all consuming, to leave us no choice but to let it go.
Back in Lisbon, Raimund is ready to leave his hotel and return to his old life in Bern. Just before to pick up his bill, the woman whose life he saved appeared at the reception. She was waiting for him. She wanted to thank him and explain that she felt suicidal because she had just learned from the book she found in the book shop that her grandfather was the ‘Butcher of Lisbon’. The grandfather whom she loved, and cried bitterly at his funeral unable to understand why so many others did not.
One of the hardest tasks we face is to accept that those capable of great evil can be also capable of great love.
While João’s granddaughter, Mariana drives him to the train station, Raimund calls his school to tell them that he is returning to his old job. But at the train station Mariana suggests to Raimund that, rather than returning to his old life, he could simply stay. And she smiles at him.
The movie moved me deeply not so much because of the philosophical questions, ideas and dilemmas it opens, but more so because of the gentle way it approaches them; how fragile our perceptions of self and life we construct is.
‘Human beings can’t bear silence. It would mean that they would bear themselves.’ (Pascal Mercier, ‘Night Train to Lisbon’).