To take one glance at Joaquim Calçada, you might expect him to have a story as tall as his hair. Pushing 70 years of age, zipped tightly into a leather bomber as glossy and black as his shellacked pompadour, he has the look of a grizzled Elvis impersonator, way adrift in small-town Portugal. Yet Joaquim’s life is a grounded one, weighed down by ordinary personal regrets and socioeconomic strains, even as his memories are dusted with second-hand glitter: Once a New York limo driver to the likes of Muhammad Ali and Jackie Kennedy, he now finds himself facing a lean blue-collar retirement in his home country, with little to show for his erstwhile travels and ambitions but some well-worn anecdotes. They find a sympathetic ear, however, in Susana Nobre’s lovely, surprising miniature “Jack’s Ride,” a perceptive hybrid documentary that leans into drama as it indulges its subject’s gifts as a raconteur.
After premiering in the Forum section of the Berlinale, the film — whose malleable nonfiction playfulness merges the stricter documentary sensibility of the director’s earlier work with the narrative diversion of 2018’s fest-traveled “Ordinary Time” — should continue to find favor with a broad range of festival programmers. Yet that very formal flexibility makes “Jack’s Ride” a harder sell to arthouse distributors: Specialist streaming outlets are likeliest to take a chance on its gentle, curious charms, which seem to reap inspiration from sources as disparate as Ken Loach, Aki Kaurismäki and Miguel Gomes.
Nobre sends her audience mixed messages in the film’s opening minutes: Opening proceedings on herself, as she fixes the camera on her affable, slickly groomed subject, “Jack’s Ride” announces itself as hands-on vérité, before artifice trickles in via the retro stylings of its saturated 16mm lensing and jaunty throwback score. Perhaps Joaquim himself views his life story as the kind of genre caper these affectations are suggesting, though it’s hit a hard reality in the present day.
In a Portugal still ravaged by austerity and unemployment, Joaquim (previously a laborer in the aeronautics industry) is months away from retirement, though to collect benefits, he must be a proven job-seeker. This absurd bureaucratic muddle sets him on a trail across the country, “scrambling for stamps” as he applies for work he doesn’t want and cannot get.
Thus is “Jack’s Ride” set up as a kind of shaggy-dog road movie, with no destination but the humble, colorfully tiled home he already shares with his quiet, patient girlfriend Miranda. As he rambles cross-country on this listless quest, however, Joaquim reflects wistfully on the 20 years he spent as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, and a more purposeful parallel journey is tracked in the past tense.
In the 1970s, the young Joaquim was hungry to escape the political turmoil and economic hardship of the Estado Novo, even if it meant working around the clock in pursuit of a modestly paid American Dream. “I never saw my son with his eyes open,” he says. Perhaps tellingly, we hear little more of his family life than that.
An arduous cycle of menial jobs finally gave way to a steadier gig as a taxi driver and limo chauffeur, and it’s here where his memories seem at once rosiest and most violently fraught. Nobre re-stages this period of his life as Scorsese-style urban mood piece, with the older Joaquim steering a stationary car down back-projected New York streets: Colorful anecdotes from these years are recalled in drawling voiceover, and sometimes dramatized in heightened, gauchely acted fashion by the man himself.
Perhaps such detours allude to the embellishing powers of memory. Since returning to his hometown in the 1990s — “No longer a dear son but a poor devil,” he quips mordantly — his life has seemingly been a comparatively staid affair, more akin to a kitchen-sink drama than the underworld-adjacent flash of his New York years. Yet even in the present, Nobre finds room for romance and improbable beauty: Paulo Menezes’ gorgeous, grainy camerawork can somehow make a captivating composition from a stack of industrial pallets in an empty warehouse. “Jack’s Ride” is a docufiction that rather cleverly matches the blurred lines of its own subject’s storytelling at each formal turn.