Lost in Space: Film Comment Selects 2013

02/19/2013 1:05 PM |

Gebo and the Shadow at Film Comment Selects

White Epilepsy suggested that the threat of death could perhaps best be represented onscreen by the conflict between light and dark, and that the movies, by keeping their subjects illuminated, somehow manage to keep them alive. That’s the hope behind Manoel de Oliveira’s quietly stunning Gebo and the Shadow, which plays out entirely in a space not too different from Grandrieux’s directionless void—a decrepit room of incalculable depth, its edges murky and indistinct, lighted only by the flame of a candle. Elderly couple Gebo and Doroteia sit up late each night: he calculates endless strings of numbers, she grieves over their meager life and tight means. The return of their prodigal son kicks off a family crisis, but the real drama lies not in what is spoken but what is seen: watching the candlelight flit over the faces of a white-haired Michael Lonsdale and an unrecognizable Claudia Cardinale, we seem to be staving off death frame by frame.

That makes Gebo sound grim. It is. Almost every spoken line is a complaint or lament; the plot is tragic; the shots long and static; the atmosphere thick and dour. It’s not surprising that a filmmaker who made his first shorts before Chaplin had transitioned to sound now has death on his mind; more unexpected is that he has made a film that, for all its grave trappings, reflects so urgently on what it means to be alive. A final gesture of compassion and self-sacrifice on Gebo’s part is accompanied by a sudden influx of light and immortalized by the oldest of cinematic tricks: a modest, well-deserved freeze-frame. Oliveira lets this moment of triumph slip out almost grudgingly: his moral universe is tough, stoic, unfuzzy, positive almost in spite of itself. Gebo gets no glory for doing his duty—his pathetic gesture comes without fanfare, though it stops death itself in its tracks. It’s an appropriate finale for a festival so full of trauma and anxiety: an affirmation spoken through gritted teeth.

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