Change of Life (1966)

Directed by Paulo Rocha; Written by Paulo Rocha and Antónia Reis

“Hard times in the city
In a hard town by the sea
Ain’t nowhere to run to
There ain’t nothin’ here for free”

Randy Newman hadn’t ever set foot in Baltimore before writing the eponymous song about the city, and it drew some perhaps well-justified ire from the locals. The image of despondent city-dwellers holding themselves in face of a doom they sense but cannot fathom is not a good look, yet it stuck around until The Wire could put it on television. 

Baltimore, or the idea of Baltimore, isn’t unique however, and Paulo Rocha’s Change of Life is proof. Set in Portugal, it stars Geraldo Del Rey as Andelino, who returns after some years away fighting in Angola, only to find his imagined future dashed. His sweetheart has married his brother in his absence, and two children now run around the home he thought would be theirs to share. Worse yet, an injury prohibits him from getting work in a coastal town where it’s either fishing or hauling sand for the industry to use – both backbreaking endeavours for even a healthy man. 

But his struggle isn’t just his own, as both industries are struggling. The hard times are etched in every face and the topic of every conversation. Not only that, the ocean is rising to literally swallow the little town up, as ruins of homes along the shoreline will attest. Even if Change of Life had been shot in color, life would still be black-and-white. As the sand of time seems to be running out, Andelino comes across a woman hellbent on making it out.

Wistful without the tears, Change of Life is a hard look at life heading towards the inevitable, as people trapped in its misery comfort each other in face of likely tragedy, because what else is there really to do? As tough as the people in it, Rocha’s film thankfully never stoops to melodrama, facing hardship head on and with a vigour that reflects its characters’ attitude there’s no time to fear when one has to work this hard. 

Shooting scenes of hard labour with exacting indulgence, Rocha cuts from the heave-ho of oars carrying fisher boats out to sea to the anguished faces of men struggling under the weight of pulling them, and any moment of repose to let workers rest is just so their brows can settle in a worried frown over how it will all work out. Life here isn’t just said to be hard, Rocha shows how hard it is. 

It’s this commitment to a fulfilling portrayal of coastal life that sustains Change of Life past the initial depression, watching Andelino see his prospects dashed and later snuffed out. Rocha paints pictures of this little town and provides a wider human context that refuses to let Andelino’s misfortune become a self-centered tragedy, as a broken heart pales next to the decaying community.

In its cast, Change of Life has the fire within that justifies the resilience of these people in embattled circumstances. Geraldo Del Rey has the same handsome allure of Alain Delon, but where Delon’s eyes seemed to see past the world, fixed on some great transcendent tragedy, Del Rey stares at life, pins it down, and begs meaning from it all. It’s a fraying nerve that makes all the difference, because otherwise, Change of Life is a defeatist slog rather than a resilient ode to working class pragmatism and hope for better. 

A lean film with all its flavor in its clear-eyed humanism, Change of Life strikes a strong note and frequency that doesn’t reverberate loudly, but has a pure and ringing emphasis on the misfortune of one man and society at large. 

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