PRINT September 2015


Manoel de Oliveira

Manoel de Oliveira, Visita ou Memórias e Confissões (Visit, or Memories and Confessions), 1982/2015, 35 mm, color, sound, 68 minutes. Manoel de Oliveira.

REMEMBRANCE TRUMPS REVELATION in Manoel de Oliveira’s Visit, or Memories and Confessions— “a film by me, about me”—that the venerable Portuguese director completed in 1982 and then decreed could not be shown until after his death, whether in characteristic deference to nineteenth-century literary tradition (cf. the compulsorily posthumous autobiographies of Mark Twain, John Stuart Mill, and Anthony Trollope) or in observance of an equally obsolete modesty. By the time the cinematic testament was exposed to the world after Oliveira’s decease at the age of 106 this past April (at screenings in his hometown of Porto, then in Lisbon, and finally at the Cannes Film Festival, where its single showing attracted a clamoring crowd of film curators and cinephilic critics), the sixty-eight-minute Visit had become a ghost story, narrated by a wraith and set in a haunted house, the abode in which Oliveira had lived since 1942 and would soon be forced to sell to pay off debts incurred by the failed family business and by his filmmaking. In the more than three decades of Visit’s concealment, speculation mounted about the divulgences therein—would they include extreme political views or tales of sexual misdemeanor?—but it turns out that the sly ironist and perennial daredevil in Oliveira, whose youthful diversions included car racing and a trapeze act, had played a jape from the grave by refusing us the anticipated admissions. Augustine confessed to far worse than the Jesuitical Oliveira; that the director was obsessed with purity and virginity, which he discusses with professorial alacrity in Visit, is hardly a revelation, amply apparent as it already was in his cinema.

Art aside, Oliveira reveals in his convivial little film that the twin passions of his life were agriculture and architecture. In the long hiatuses in his early filmmaking career, between his silent “city symphony,” Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931), the proto-Neorealist Aniki-Bóbó (1942), and the Pasolinian passion play Acto da Primavera (Rite of Spring, 1963), Oliveira not only worked for his father’s company, which produced the first lightbulbs in Portugal, but also happily tended the vineyard that his wife, Maria Isabel (whom he apotheosizes in Visit), had inherited. The director’s doting evocations of the Douro River and its verdant hills in Abraham’s Valley (1993) and The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) and of the country estate in Magic Mirror (2005) register Oliveira’s enduring love for his native landscape and its bounty of olives and grapes. (In Strange Case, Oliveira frames his alter ego, the photographer Isaac, against olive trees to emphasize the arboreal origins of the director’s family name, one that he ironically shared with the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.) As great a paysagiste as Oliveira was, his eye for architecture proved more telling, as exemplified by the Portas villa in Strange Case with its massive stone balustrade, star-shaped ceiling, epoch-confounding interiors, and conspiratorially half-opened doors. He favored extended establishing shots of his many edifices—mansions, museums, a monastery in The Convent (1995)—in whose sepulchral rooms shadows gather amid ponderous Iberian furniture: the twilit home of the writer in Day of Despair (1992), say, or the suffocating manor in Francisca (1981). The director also indulged his architectural penchant by designing his own abode—at once Manderlay in its accretion of secrets and Marienbad in its housing of questionable memories—which proves to be the second protagonist of Visit, with several nautical features (portholes for windows and white cabins opening onto gangways): a landlocked domicile that yearns to set sail.

Nurturing anachronism in his art, where the present can easily be mistaken for an indeterminate yesteryear, given the mismatched temporal cues (in, for example, Strange Case or Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl [2009]), and where the contemporary world incorporates the social protocols of a distant century (e.g., in The Letter [1999]), Oliveira became a man out of time—and seemingly immune to its effect. (His longevity, which spanned from cinema’s early silent period to the digital era, was all the more extraordinary for the accelerating prolificacy of his late career: After making only a handful of films during his first half century, he produced a veritable inundation after the age of eighty.) When a title card emerges at the outset of Benilde, or the Virgin Mother (1975)—the second film of the director’s so-called “Tetralogy of Thwarted Love”—to inform the audience that “the action of this film is supposed to take place in the 1930s,” its provisional tone seems jokily plaintive, as if Oliveira were ruefully admitting the possibility of chronological misapprehension.

The magisterial tetralogy, which also includes The Past and the Present (1972), Doomed Love (1979), and Francisca, established Oliveira’s international reputation after Portugal’s Carnation Revolution freed the country from the Estado Novo, Salazar’s oppressive regime, which had censured Oliveira’s early films. (The director would later taxonomize this work as “the stage of the people,” in contrast to “the stage of the bourgeoisie,” as he called his mature period. The revolution also bankrupted the family business after workers occupied the Oliveiras’ factory.) The four tales of forbidden passions and unrequited love—two cardinal themes Oliveira shared with his idol and influence Luis Buñuel—defiantly returned to the tradition of “canned theater” in their frequent employment of static camera, long monologues, intertitles, suppression of close-ups and shot-counter-shot editing, and stilted tableaux. (Oliveira accentuates this immobility by, for instance, opening Benilde with a crazily snaking tracking shot through a labyrinth of hallways before locking the camera down in a single set; the director appears to taunt his audience with the complicated camera movement he is evidently capable of but then refuses to employ.) The tetralogy paradoxically arrived at what can only be called modernist archaism. The films’ frontal framing, declamatory line readings, and privileging of the word as equal to image and music share odd kinship with the materialist cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, whose Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) Oliveira greatly admired; their spiritual-amorous quandaries with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and emphasis on religious miracles with his Ordet (1955); and their pleonastic narration and affectless acting with the films of Robert Bresson. Oliveira’s taste for attenuation and tales of impossible passion reached its perverse apogee in The Satin Slipper (1985), a seven-hour transcription of the rightist Catholic mystic Paul Claudel’s magnum opus about two lovers who endure vast separation in Counter-Reformation Spain and await consummation after death.

Jansenist to Oliveira’s Jesuit, Eric Rohmer, whose cinema has its own Claudelian concerns, might have agreed with the prefatory line of The Satin Slipper: “Omnia cooperantur in bonum, etiam peccata” (Everything works together for good, even sins). Largely unremarked in explorations of Oliveira’s influences and affinities—though, for instance, Benilde and Rohmer’s The Marquise of O (1976) can be profitably paired as mysteries of impregnation—the Frenchman shares many things with the Portuguese master, including a frequent reliance on antique forms and sources, themes of spiritual quest and testing, a preference for long takes, and, above all, a luxuriance of logorrhea. (The two doubtless appreciated Bresson’s surprising tenet in Notes on Cinematography: “A flood of words does a film no harm. A matter of kind, not quantity.”) When Oliveira claimed of his loquacious Abraham’s Valley, “The film begins with language,” he could have been speaking of his entire oeuvre. Rapidly orated in strange cadences, Oliveira’s dialogue can weary the ear, especially when it takes a turn to the obscure or the metaphysical. The more memorable of many theoretical dialogues or staged colloquia in his garrulous cinema include the soldiers’ debates about the nature of Portuguese imperialism in No, or the Vain Glory of Command (1990), the discourses taken from the Bible and Dostoyevsky in A Divina Comédia (1991), the tangents about the nature of verandas and rural architecture in which the narrator of Abraham’s Valley indulges, the breakfast-table banter of the boarders in Strange Case that consumes more than a tenth of the film’s running time, and the history lessons, somewhere between pedagogy and pedantry, that Leonor Silveira, Oliveira’s beautiful, blue-eyed muse throughout his late career, dispenses to her daughter as their ship sails toward disaster in the aptly titled A Talking Picture (2003). Archest of all, this last film concocts a Platonic symposium from a color-coded trio of grandes dames (Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli, Irene Papas) who debate the state of the world at the table of a ship’s captain played by John Malkovich, whose unctuous manner of speech recalls the Chrétien de Troyes apothegm that introduces Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach (1983): “A wagging tongue bites itself.”

Oliveira’s erudition and mastery of historical arcana sometimes veered toward the hermetic (e.g., in Word and Utopia [2000]), and his wry absurdism—who else envisioned a mock-solemn opera about aristocratic cannibals?—could prove enchanting, as in the necrophiliac fixations in The Past and the Present and The Strange Case of Angelica, or turn tedious, as in his update of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), whose weakly punning homophonic title, Belle toujours (2006), and replacement of a young Catherine Deneuve with an elderly Bulle Ogier as the masochistic housewife-turned-prostitute Séverine, reflect the film’s sense of belatedness. Oliveira’s proclivity for protraction—“I don’t want to cut up my shots just to satisfy the audience,” he said—could exasperate, especially in the abbreviated films he increasingly favored as he aged. His camera fastened on the turning wheel of a horse carriage for several minutes at the beginning of Day of Despair, whose formalist frittering-away of time was later rivaled by the credit sequence of Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, in which an uneventful three minutes of ticket-taking on a train seems perversely disproportionate in a work that lasts little over an hour. Similarly, Oliveira’s use of music sometimes gave delight (a recital of a Debussy harp arabesque running overtime in Eccentricities, Maria João Pires playing Chopin in Strange Case) and sometimes seemed determined to irritate (Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony repetitively accompanying nocturnal travelogues of Paris in Belle toujours). The spoken credits at the beginning of Visit proudly announce the music as Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, but, except for two brief orchestral flourishes, the film employs only its solo passages—Oliveira in willful-denial mode.

Of the many alter egos that Oliveira created in his late cinema, including the film director played by Marcello Mastroianni (adorned by the director’s trademark hat) in Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997) and the grieving theater actor (Michel Piccoli) in the immensely moving I’m Going Home (2001), none was more distinctly autobiographical than the photographer Isaac in The Strange Case of Angelica, based on a script the director wrote in the 1950s, then abandoned. Acted by Oliveira’s grandson Ricardo Trêpa, who resembles the director as a young man, Isaac witnesses a world—Oliveira’s beloved Douro and its traditions—that is rapidly passing, and he is determined to document its last vestiges with his obsolete art (analog photography). Oliveira used CGI for the first time in his career to produce the film’s special effects—the dead Angelica floating seraphically through night skies, for instance—but, in his typically anachronistic manner, impelled the technology toward an outmoded aesthetic, rendering the computer-generated imagery to resemble the primitive magic-making of film pioneer Georges Méliès. As Oliveira confirms in the long-deferred Visit, his modernism was inevitably borne back to what he calls in Strange Casela moda antiga,” every voyage on which he embarked ineluctably arriving at cinema’s beginnings.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.