(Written by Sean Boelman, disappointment media)
João Canijo’s Mal Viver and Viver Mal—translating to “Bad Living” and “Living Bad”—are two of the more interesting films in this year’s Berlinale lineup, as they are companion pieces. Billed as a “shot/reverse shot,” Canijo’s duology is well-made and intriguing, even if its novelty begins to wear thin in the second half. The two movies present a collaborative portrait of the operators and guests of a Portuguese hotel, and the various interpersonal conflicts that happen on the premises. It is best to think of these films not as an A-side and a B-side, but as the same image presented through two different lenses—revealing more of the picture as one looks at it through the other perspective.
Mal Viver, which is considered to be the more “dominant” of the two movies, is also the superior one. This story of the five women who have inherited the hotel hits some familiar beats within the family drama genre, but also has a very keen grasp of the core emotion of the story and why the audiences should care about this family. Whereas Mal Viver could function as a successful film on its own, Viver Mal is much more dependent on its other half. The purpose of Viver Mal seems to be to fill out the holes of its counterpart, adding context to many of the scenes previously viewed. Although this does succeed to an extent in enriching the project’s themes, it also eliminates any subtlety and ambiguity left by Mal Viver.
Ultimately, the main reason that Mal Viver ends up being more interesting than Viver Mal is that its themes are far more compelling. Mal Viver is a multigenerational portrait of a matriarchy, which is much more unique than Viver Mal’s somewhat melodramatic satire of the upper class visitors of the resort. The project is at its best when it is following the five central women, meaning the entirety of Mal Viver’s runtime and certain sections of Viver Mal. These characters—brought to life wonderfully by Anabela Moreira, Rita Blanco, Madalena Almeida, Cleia Almeida, and Vera Barreto—are three-dimensional and developed with a humanity that few other movies have been able to achieve.
Of course, both films boast impressive production values, especially the extraordinary cinematography by Leonor Teles and the beautiful production design and set decoration. Canijo takes full advantage of the sleepy, picturesque setting of the old hotel to create an alluring and transfixing atmosphere. Mal Viver and Viver Mal make for an interesting duology, even if one side is significantly better than the other. Although conclusively worth the extra two hours to watch Viver Mal and fill out the experience, viewers would also be fine simply watching the superior of the two (Mal Viver), and leaving it at that.
Mal Viver and Viver Mal debuted at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival.