Légua (2023) ‘Cannes’ Review: There are a few ways in which movies dealing with topics about the monotony of life can hope to catch a viewer’s attention. In most of these films, the impetus is utilizing static shots and long takes of people going about their jobs or luxuriating in the bask of nature, lulling the viewer into a sense of nonchalance with incremental incidents building up to an inciting point and encapsulating the major themes of the movie.
For movies such as this, the slow pace feels almost like a prerequisite, which for Legua, adds to its detriment. What caught my attention is how the movie opens with Ana (Carla Maciel) leaving the summer house she cares for and hopping in her Ciroen, and as the credits roll, we see the roads from her perspective as she drives back to her house and a Portuguese pop song plays.
The pop song is energetic and catchy; that same energetic pep in the step accompanies Ana as she finally gets ready for bed and has a steamy sexual encounter with her husband. This is a woman who is sexually empowered, but as we see where she works, we realize that her job is thankless.
As directors Filipa Reis and Joao Miller Guerra reveal through their unhurried pacing, Ana and the elder caretaker Emilia (Fatima Soares) essentially look after a large summer house belonging to a rich family living in Lisbon. And when the scene opens, we see Emilia strongly instruct Ana and remind her to ensure the bedsheets are taut or the blankets applied on the bed without creases, to which Ana remarks almost silently how these owners wouldn’t even notice the creases or even the color of the bedsheet.
We already have a sense of the rebellion within Ana — an acknowledgment, as an older and more experienced woman, that her job doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be acknowledged. And as we get further revelations about her family, we realize that Ana is reluctant to leave the elderly housekeeper alone in that house, even if that means staying apart from her husband, who also works in the service industry and is now moving to another city for a better-paying job.
Emilia’s strict and unnerving presence almost personifies the summer house. Still, the true equivalency of the thanklessness of Ana’s job finally comes after the first hour, when Emilia finally falls sick, and Ana has to take care of her as well as the house. Those are the moments where the utilization of static shots, the lack of a score in the background, and the camera completely still and unmoved, documenting how Ana changes Emilia’s diaper while Emilia is almost unconscious with delirium, are moments of uncomfortable poignancy.
There are flashes of these silent moments amidst the documentation of monotony even within the first act: the difference in music taste between the two women, the visible discomfort Emilia shows on Ana’s birthday at Ana’s openness and jocularity, or Emilia’s frustration leading to her crying when she drops the glass from her table and is unable to pick it up.
There is also a fantastic sequence where Ana, Emilia, and Ana’s daughter Monica sit around a table. Emilia and Monica are given oranges. While Monica peels her orange with a knife, Emilia is reticent too, a stubbornness borne out of old age and also because of Monica’s quick-witted barbs, which Emilia easily mistakes for impudence.
The difference between the three generations is also shown via another fantastic scene, where the youngest and the eldest of the trio are seated in their respective chairs, the youngest impatiently shaking her knee, while the oldest is too tired and unable to move, but both are watching television.
The one working is Ana, who is setting the table. While that is an efficient encapsulation of one of the core themes of this film—the difference in the mindset of three generations of women and their concept and valuation of the work they do or desire to do—the core theme is the equivalency of caregiving and the unacknowledged hardship Ana has to face in taking care of the house or taking care of Emilia.
Ana has an answer ready for Monica when asked why she is so involved in Emilia’s caregiving without any acknowledgment, and Ana’s curt reply shows the loyalty she has for the old woman but the reluctance she shows in evaluating why she is taking care of the house is noticeable. It is not explicitly stated, but Emilia is the only reason Ana might even consider staying, especially when her explanation of the work being low but with exponentially higher pay doesn’t hold water.
Legua, however, suffers from what most of these films focusing on the monotony of the lives of normal individuals fall into: at the expense of exploring and setting up these characters, the movie tries to become a slow burn but becomes an interminable slog. The message is clear when the directors luxuriate over the house, garden, mountains, and rural countryside: change is inevitable, but Ana and Emilia are almost stuck in amber.
The problem comes when the movie, too, feels stuck in molasses as a result because the underlying point and theme of the film don’t become discernible until at least halfway through the movie. The bigger problem, too, stems from the exploration of Monica’s character, who is a college-going kid and is exploring the world, a completely separate vocation from the other two generations. Her backstory and the subplot with her feel so incidental that they could almost be excised, and none of us would be the wiser. The ending of the movie, too, feels weird.
There were hints and flashes of surrealism at some of the transitions of the scenes, but the final sequence, almost becoming like a drug-induced haze in the darkness, is appropriately gorgeous to look at. Still, within the context of the themes the movie chooses to explore, it feels added on and unnecessary.
The choice to never show the owners in the film almost makes the directors free to portray the house as its own character. The three distinct generations, the grappling of their sexuality, and the relative difference in their broad-mindedness are fascinating kernels of ideas hidden beneath this contemplative but sometimes staid screenplay. Legua never truly proves why it needed to be a slow burn to tell this story. But when it does finally choose to delve into its core, it becomes an uncomfortable yet poignant and slightly despondent affair.