By Andrei Khalip
LISBON (Reuters) - The Portuguese prefer not to talk, much less joke, about the 1932-1968 fascist dictatorship of Antonio Salazar - which may explain why it has taken a "superhero" to broach the topic in a big-screen comedy.
The masked, moustachioed "Capitao Falcao" (Captain Falcon) is Salazar's most trusted henchman in a movie of the same name, tackling the "red menace" of communism and attempts to bring democracy to Portugal in the 1960s.
The much-awaited release - in which the motorcycle-riding Falcao and his sidecar-borne sidekick the Partridge Kid fight bearded communists in red overalls armed with hammers and sickles - is due to hit Portuguese movie theatres next summer.
Far from an ultra-conservative apologia, the film is a spoof designed to "exorcise some of our demons of the past by laughter", said director Joao Leitao, 32, whose crew describes Falcao as an "ultra-patriot and ultra-idiot".
The imagery was partly inspired by the 1960s "Batman" TV series, while the humor is more in the mould of the BBC's 1980s sitcom 'Allo 'Allo!' about Nazi-occupied France, he said.
"If we don't laugh at ourselves, we don't grow, we risk only looking at the past as something glorious, which is a very Portuguese defect," Leitao said while wrapping up shooting in a darkened studio hangar in Lisbon.
"It's scary that in our current economic crisis there are people saying 'there was no unemployment under Salazar'," he added. Portugal, which needed a financial bailout in 2011, only recently emerged from its worst recession since the 1970s.
Salazar ruled Portugal and its colonies with an iron fist for decades. His authoritarian New State government, backed by the PIDE secret police, outlived him to fall in 1974 after a practically bloodless Carnation Revolution.
But he remains a hugely divisive figure. A 2007 state television poll named him the greatest person in his country's history.
'MORE THAN A QUICK LAUGH'
Unlike in real life, where his kidnapped opponents were often tortured, Salazar is seized in the film by the communists and has to be rescued by Falcao.
"I was born when Salazar came to power so when I read the script I thought 'Lord, they'll kill me if I play him, I'll need bodyguards,'" said veteran Portuguese actor Jose Pinto, 84. "But now I think people will be entertained, and surprised."
The superhero already enjoys a growing cult following thanks to a short video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFbeDw-Wwmg) released in 2011 as part of an abandoned TV series project. It has more than 8,000 fans on Facebook.
That fan base reflects the popularity of versatile actor Goncalo Waddington, 36, who plays Falcao and says his character "becomes unstoppable when he gets an order from Salazar."
"People keep asking me when the movie is coming out. If we had any tickets available we'd be sold out," he added.
"The film has a lot more to it than a quick laugh. It's a provocation that makes you think. The ultra-conservative, square spirit of that era can still be found today, only in a more disguised form - racism, homophobia, indifference to others," Waddington said.
The film was funded privately by producers who have not disclosed its cost. Portugal's largest cinema and home entertainment chain ZON Lusomundo has the distribution rights.
Lusomundo's release means the film will be screened in around 40 cinemas across Portugal, which is good for a local release. The filmmakers said they also have a tentative agreement with a Los Angeles-based firm for international distribution, which is likely to be straight to DVD.
The fact the movie market is already saturated with big-budget superhero franchises doesn't bother the crew much.
"They'll probably launch two or three superhero blockbusters by the summer. But nobody else has a real fascist," Leitao said.
(Reporting By Andrei Khalip; Editing by Michael Roddy and John Stonestreet)