Manoel de Oliveira, Gebo and the Shadow, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes.

AS IF BEING the oldest living filmmaker in the world were not distinction enough, Manoel de Oliveira may also be the canniest at wresting cinematic gold from the barest of means. Give him a text, a few actors, and a place to set up his camera, and watch the mundane metamorphose into art. His new film, based on a play by Raul Brandao and set in a small Portuguese village in the late nineteenth century, is as minimalist as the situation it depicts. Embracing rather than masking his theatrical source, Oliveira even cuts to an exterior view of the modest house where the action takes place to mark the end of each “act.”

The action occurs in a single room where three people sit at an all-purpose table every day, living out their near-impoverished, unadventurous existences, consumed by anxious, endless exchanges over the fate and whereabouts of a prodigal son. Gebo (Michel Lonsdale), an underpaid bookkeeper, strives unceasingly to prevent his wife Dorotea (Claudia Cardinale) from learning that their wandering offspring Joao (Ricardo Trepa) is a common thief, if not worse. Despite their daughter-in-law Sophia’s (Leonor Silveira) awareness of Joao’s character, she helps Gebo sustain Dorotea’s illusions. Just as we wonder whether Joao will actually materialize, he makes a dramatic appearance at the end of act one, laughing contemptuously as his father stares in amazement.

Throughout the second act the callous Joao mocks what he calls the pathetic lives of his parents who “know nothing about the world.” Even the presence of visitors (Jeanne Moreau and Luis Miguel Cintra) fails to deter him from relating his misadventures, including the possibility that he’s committed murder. (The film’s prelude opens with this enigmatically shot encounter, framed in shadows, with the as yet unidentified figure of Joao running off, shouting “It wasn’t me!”) All the while, Joao eyes the huge briefcase of money that his father holds for his clients, which, predictably, he steals at the climax of act two, before running off once again.

Not even this development impels Gebo to tell his wife the truth. As he composes an explanation to his clients about the stolen money without naming his son, Sophia tries to persuade him otherwise. Finally, Gebo makes the ultimate decision: In the presence of his wife and Sophia, he declares to the police and the accusers that accompany them that he is the thief. Ironically, this sacrificial gesture, a reversal of Joao’s disavowal of guilt in the prelude, is, of course, another lie.

Simple and parabolic as it may seem, the tale makes us wonder: Is it a subtle parody of the untenable extremes to which one might go to protect loved ones and perpetuate a lie? Or is it an account of the unbearable reality of ordinary lives, enslaved to given conditions, expecting nothing and awaiting the end? The dialogue is laced with both insinuations—each character voicing a different facet of the question—and is delivered with unimpeachable conviction by Oliveira’s first-rate cast. Lonsdale is the epitome of the resigned, long-suffering Everyman, dutifully balancing his account books only slightly more exactingly than he does the ethical options he weighs in accordance with established moral laws. If he suffers any conflict over his choices, they are offset by his wife’s naïve, monotonic inquiries about their son.

Oliveira’s option to avoid shot/countershot editing in favor of long takes and frontal compositions is flawless, complementing the inherently undramatic tensions between character perspectives while muting contrived standoffs. I was reminded of Dreyer’s final film Gertrud (1964)—another masterful transformation of a theater piece. As often with such a controlled style, a singular instance of a filmic convention carries great weight. In this case, it is Oliveira’s sparing use of off-screen space and sound: Joao’s entrance at the end of act one is first hinted at by a shadow that passes outside of the house, and then is mirrored on Lonsdale’s face as he stares ahead, the noise of the front door heard opening as his eyes follow what could be an off-screen specter. “You!” he says, just before Joao enters from frame right. The strategy registers both surprise and terror. Suddenly, the shadowy reality that Gebo has carefully constructed and precariously sustained is threatened by the ominous presence of the unexpected.

Tony Pipolo

Gebo and the Shadow opens at Anthology Film Archives on Wednesday, May 28.