Portuguese immigrants, Maria (Rita Blanco) and José (Joaquim de Almeida) have lived in Paris for 30 years raising their now adult daughter and teenage son. When José finds out that he has inherited the family winery, they are over the moon, but they face an awkward dilemma.
Ruben Alves blends his Portuguese family’s backstory into the warm – if a little weird – French farce, The Gilded Cage.
the message gets muddled in the madness
This story of the Portuguese diaspora focuses on an apartment block in Paris, where Maria Ribeiro (Rita Blanco) toils as the on-site concierge, politely beholden to- and perennially on call for- the entitled residents on the floors above. Her husband José (Joaquim de Almeida) does the odd jobs and maintenance, whilst also being the trusted foreman of an over-committed construction company (his personable manner is an acknowledged asset when his employer is negotiating much-needed mega-Euro contracts).
Alves establishes early on that José and Maria are indispensable to everyone they know, as they smilingly tolerate each new claim to their time; truth be told, they rather enjoy the feeling of being needed by all and sundry, including by their extended families (Maria's sister Lourdes, for instance, dreams of opening a café serving Portuguese delicacies, but her success rest on culinary wiz Maria stepping up to the hot plate). Having moved to France for a better life several decades ago, Maria and José identify with the lot of hard-working, self-sacrificing émigré, down to the fact their kids now identify more as French than Portuguese.
Unexpected news from Portugal offers to unshackle them from their life of consensual servitude, with a sizeable inheritance promising to set them up for good on a profitable estate back home.
It wouldn’t be much of a farce if Maria and José promptly handed in their notice and hopped the first flight bound for Lisbon; sure enough, complications ensue. The (very) nouveau riche duo resolves to take some time to digest this remarkable news before acting on it, but when they neglect to put the Title Deeds out of sight of prying eyes, their windfall becomes the worst kept secret on the block. And it’s here that things get silly.
Rather than toast their employees’ and sisters’ good fortune, the beneficiaries of Maria and José ’s hard work conspire to guilt them into staying, going so far as to feign illness as a means to keep the couple at their beck and call.
The tone shifts awkwardly as the sizeable cast of supporting characters concoct ever-more devious ways to stop the Ribeiros from relocating. The pitch is heightened for comedic effect of course, but the cumulative effect makes Maria and José look like chumps. As you watch them stay paralysed by indecision, you too may ponder aloud why they don’t just tell these jerks to 'take this job and shove it’. Lourdes in particular, could do with being told to stick her salted cod where the sun don’t shine. Naturally, the chaos builds to an inevitable 'payback montage’ but when it comes, it risks coming too late. By that time, a scene where Maria and José put on airs to host a dinner for José ’s wealthy boss and family has been particularly unkind to the two leads.
The Gilded Cage was a sleeper hit in France, and unsurprisingly, it has gone gangbusters in Portugal (no spoilers, but the ending trots out all manner of cameos that are intended to play well with a home crowd). It’s hard to fault the film’s rousing shout out to hard-working migrant families, but the message gets muddled in the madness.