Fernão Mendes Pinto was a 16th century Portuguese explorer, adventurer, memoirist and fabulist whose life reads like a conflation of the quests of Cabeza de Vaca or Marco Polo and the picaresque invented misadventures of Baron Munchausen or Harry Flashman.
He sailed from Portugal to become one of the first Europeans to experience Japan, with colorful stops at kingdoms, islands and royal courts from Africa to India, Malaca to Siam (Thailand) and China along the way.
He was shipwrecked and taken hostage repeatedly, found himself in battles with the expansionist Turks and caught up in court intrigues and international diplomacy, far and wide. His very motivation for the trip was, this son of the working poor said, sleeping with the wrong woman at court in Lisbon.
And the punchline to his life is that while some of what he claimed jibes with the historical record, enough of it seems invented to make it all colorfully and fantastically dubious.
You visited the court of Prestor John to help press the case for an alliance against the Turks? Sure.
Portugeuse writer-director João Botelho (“A Corte do Norte”) had the makings of a playful or darkly comic odyssey in tackling this biography or tall tale. He made a good-looking if modestly-budgeted film that takes in exotic sights and avoids the expensive business of staging sea battles and grand palace pageants.
But in trying to immerse us in these utterly alien worlds an under-schooled European encountered on multiple continents, Botelho leaves the viewer almost as much as sea as his hero.
At times, it’s frustrating just to figure out where in the hell Pinto, stoically played by Cláudio da Silva, is, much less who the hell he’s talking to, negotiating with or bedding.
The story is framed in Pinto’s efforts to publish the tales he dictates to his wife (Catarina Wallenstein) and their transfixed and amazed daughters.
“There is no money” for his book, he says (in Portuguese with English subtitles). He fears its because no one believes him.
Setting off as a young man, supposedly under a cloud and fearing his murder at the hands of a jealous husband, he sails East on a Caravel bound for the then-new Portuguese trading colony of Goa. The Turks covet India and are on the march in Africa and the Middle East.
His crew seizes a Turkish ship, and cruelly execute a Greek galley slave who converted to Islam to save his life. They themselves are defeated and waylaid more than once over the course of their decades-long travels.
Visits to Ethiopia and India, Malacca and onwards, cargoes of cloves and spices or cotton are bought and traded or stolen as they’re taken prisoner repeatedly, “captured 13 times,” Pinto declares, “sold into slavery 17 times.”
Botelho seems as perplexed at where to physically and historically place our hero as Pinto himself must have been, hunting a pirate here, losing a cargo there, kidnapped and marched off by this regime or that one.
The later acts are plainly near the end of voyage, in China — where he and his Greek chorus (singing their narration to the story, a GREAT touch) crew are jailed for looting the hanging coffins and shrines along the Yangtze River — or Japan, where their European firearms using the Far East’s invention, gunpowder, get him into trouble, not for the first or last time.
This explorer wasn’t the first European to arrive at many of these places, and he’s conveniently provided with a shipmate known only as “The Interpreter” (Cassiano Carneiro), who speaks every dialect they encounter, a multi-multi-lingual survivor of all their trials — including literal trials in China and Japan.
Pinto doesn’t bed a woman in every port, but he comes close. And not all the sex, it is implied, was consensual.
There isn’t a minute of screentime where we aren’t in this journey with Pinto, on that beautiful caravel or ashore, stumbling through meetings with potentates and poobahs.
But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that “Pilgrimage,” which takes its title from the book that was eventually published, is more a collection of missed opportunities than a tale for the ages. It’s never comical enough to be picaresque, never quite eye-popping enough to feel epic, not moral enough to be a parable, with much of the violence skipped over for budgetary reasons.
Our filmmaker may take pains to show us a couple of screen titles that give the dates of the voyage 1537-1558, but does almost nothing to identify where he is at any given time.
And why keep talking about Antonio de Faria if you’re never going to show him? A lot of the characters who are on screen aren’t indentified and dileneated nearly well enough, and yet the name you hear over and over again, along with the mythic “Prestor John,” is Faria’s.
Some of this might be attributed to biting off a bigger tale than one could afford to tell, some to not making up one’s mind about this braggart whose nickname was “Minto,” liar, and whose credulous book was only published decades after his death.
As “Pilgrimage” checks off a lot of boxes of movies I tend to like — historical, nautical, “first Western contact” — I was more willing than the average viewer to give myself over to Botelho’s tale. But I found the film, now streamable and on DVD, more frustating than informative or fun.
Rating: unrated, violence, nudity
Cast: Cláudio da Silva, Cassiano Carneiro, Minda Mandala, Catarina Wallenstein, Jani Zhao, Elton Lee
Credits: Scripted and directed by João Botelho, based on the book by Fernão Mendes Pinto. An IndiePix release.
Running time: 1:48