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Within hours of stepping off a transcontinental flight, Ruben Alves is deep into an Australian interview schedule in support of his directorial debut, The Gilded Cage. A bittersweet comedy/drama with strong autobiographical elements, its story of a Portuguese family struggling with their Parisian life and the pull of their homeland has been a blockbuster hit; this week, Alves' film picked up the coveted People’s Choice honours at the European Film Awards. His staggered English will come through in the text below, as will his passion for the film, love for his characters and genuine humility regarding the film’s success. He spoke to SCREEN-SPACE at Sydney’s iconic Chauvel Cinema…

The script (co-written with Hugo Gelin and Jean-Andre Yerles) crafts such fully-formed characters of all the family members. Given the autobiographical element, can we assume your experiences are represented by Pedro, the teenage son, played by Alex Alves Pereira?

I am not the son, specifically. I think I am all the characters, a little bit. For sure, my life was my parents. My mom is still a concierge in Paris and my father still works. But, for example, the scene where the son refuses to recognise his mum never happened to me. But it is a feeling, like writing, what a teenager can feel at this moment of his life. It is not entirely autobiographical but it is inspired (by my life), for sure. I was 30 when I started writing and I felt it was time for me to step back and look at it with a new maturity, both with regard to this community and to this family.

There is a vibrant Portuguese community here in Australia, but it is fair to say that the general population here may not be as well versed on Portuguese customs or traditions. What can be learnt of Portuguese people from The Gilded Cage?

In the movie I wanted to talk about this integration that Portuguese people are capable of. Wherever they go, they are able to integrate with any society, mainly because of their work (ethic). Wherever they go, they work, work, work, but do so with very little noise, very discreet. At the same time, Portugese people will recognise all sorts of detail and feel something very deep in the movie.

And I am also talking about immigrants and the immigrant’s experience. Australia is a country that was built on immigration and in the film we look at going back home, finding your roots and your origins. After 30 years in your adopted country or city, you make a new life and new traditions, but you never lose the desire to return to where you came from and rediscover the values that you were born with. Portuguese people have an increible link to their family and their families past and I think the movie is most about that.

Each of your key cast members (pictured, above) have had their own immigration experience. Did this in any way infuse the production or their understanding of the characters?

Joaquim de Almeida (pictured, left) is a Portuguese immigrant. He has lived in the United States for 30 years or so. He speaks seven languages. Rita Blanco speaks very good French but she lives in Lisbon, and worked on a film about immigrants a few years ago. They understand so much.

When I met Joaquim de Almeida, it was at the Festival de Cannes at a cocktail beach party. The first thing he said to me was, “There is nothing to eat here!” All they had were those small hors d’oeuvres things and to the Portuguese, food is very important. That was when I first thought, ‘Oh, he could be my character’. He always played the bad boy in these big productions but it would be more interesting to see him as this very humble man.

It was very hard early because I said all my actors had to be Portuguese. But it’s a French movie and my French producers said to me, “Well ok, but we don’t know any Portuguese actors in France.” It was so important to me to create a very real family, even though it is essentially a comedy. It is light but not so light that you can forget the deeper moments. During the shooting, the actors understand that.

Perhaps your greatest accomplishment is that it achieves such a precise balance between giddy joy and a deeper reality…?

Well, that is just life. That is what life is to me. I live my life like that and I love that I was able to have that in the movie, several emotions all working in balance. That was always in the script because I am like that, that is where I write from. It was important to me to have a story where you could be laughing but then, suddenly, things get deeper.

Does that explain why it is travelling so well? Why audiences and critics are relating to these people?

First of all, it is a declaration of love for my parents; an honest, very human situation that we talk about truthfully. Everything is so complicated and so fast and so rude today (laughs), life is not so simple. Maybe this movie offers something warm and simple. Maybe we are all immigrants a little bit, or sometimes feel displaced, which I think is why the movie has touched so many people. 

The Gilded Cage from Palace Films is in Australian cinemas from December 12; Ruben Alves will be attending special Q&A screenings during his visit. Full details here.

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