Stages of Life: Manoel de Oliveira, 1908-2015

04/06/2015 2:00 PM |
Manoel de Oliveira directs Claudia Cardinale on the set of his final feature film, 'Gebo and the Shadow'.

There has never been a film career comparable to that of Manoel de Oliveira. The Portuguese filmmaker—who died this past Thursday of heart failure at age 106—completed his first film in 1931, a short silent documentary about workers in his home city of Porto called Labor on the Doro River. His first feature, 1942’s Aniki-Bóbó (starring Porto schoolchildren and named after one of their playtime songs), came over a decade later. A combination of family business obligations and restrictions imposed by Portugal’s then-ruling fascist government prevented him from realizing his second feature-length film until his self-reflexive recording of a Passion Play staged in a rural part of northern Portugal, Rite of Spring (1963), could be made twenty years afterwards. Oliveira had been raised a Catholic, and although he preferred not to identify himself as such, conversations between spiritual and material life consistently entered his films.

He was already in his sixties when he made his third feature, a dark satire of his nation’s bourgeois sector and its attachment to dead ideals called Past and Present (1971). That film marked the first entry in what has since come to be known as Oliveira’s “tetralogy of frustrated love,” all of whose films explore the self-destructive, and oft-rewarding, nature of unconsummated passions. The tetralogy’s subsequent installments—Benilde or the Virgin Mother (1975), Doomed Love (1979), and Francisca (1981)—were realized following Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974, a joint military and civilian rebellion that led to democratic rule in Portugal as well as to the bankruptcy of factories that had belonged to Oliveira’s family, forcing him into a long period of paying off family debts.

He reached stability in his cinematic production with the help of ingenious producer Paulo Branco, a regular collaborator of his from Francisca up to their separation following The Fifth Empire (2004). Oliveira directed more features after turning seventy than he previously had in his entire lifetime. Between 1990 and 2012 in particular he completed at least one film per year, realizing works primarily in Portugal and in France, and possibly would have made more still towards the end had he not reached difficulty getting productions insured due to his age. He had made his final film long prior, a still-unreleased docudrama about his family history called Memories and Confessions (1982) that he wished to be left unscreened until after his death. Oliveira passed away as the world’s oldest active filmmaker on record, and the only one to have worked in both the silent and digital eras.

There has never been a career like Oliveira’s; there have also, to my mind, never been films quite like his.

He was a documentarian at heart that believed profoundly in the value of artifice. The carefully framed nature photography in his films stuns, whether it be the bringing to life of the painter António Cruz’s renderings of Porto in the documentary short The Artist and the City (1956) or an effort to register a trembling human hand reaching for a tree branch’s leaves in Voyage to the Beginning to the World (1997). Oliveira’s literary adaptations regularly contain long stretches of their source works that appear both as printed words onscreen and as clearly articulated sounds leaving their monologue-delivering actors’ mouths. His adaptations of plays often unfold on uncluttered, simply arranged stages that are clearly identified as such, the better for viewers to focus on the human dramas being acted out. Music comes sparingly and forcefully in emphasis of what has been said.

When Oliveira’s actors speak with their scene partners, they frequently do so while looking outwards, directing even their declarations of love and hate to some distant point offscreen. The words are particular and vital to the action, and they merit the formal enunciations given to them. At the same time, what registers at least as much as the words themselves is the essential act of a person speaking. The title declaration of I’m Going Home (2001), bursting softly from the lips of a widowed aging thespian who can’t remember a line, reaches us as a childlike cry for help; the descriptions that a separated man and wife each recite to us of the other in Day of Despair (1992), the pained memories uttered by a man about his yearned-for dead beloved in Anxiety (1998), and the rigorously composed sermons about God’s wishes for mankind given by a Jesuit philosopher-priest in Word and Utopia (2000) all function similarly as variations on a theme played jointly by text and by delivery.

Throughout Oliveira’s films, we witness human beings expressing their desires to reach beyond their surroundings, and in doing so, strive to expand themselves past the limits of time. Works such as No or the Vain Glory of Command (1990)—a history of Portuguese colonial expansion and its follies presented as a series of dialogues between Africa-stationed soldiers on the Carnation Revolution’s eve—bring to mens’ wants a sweeping tragic aspect. Yet even in Oliveira’s more intimate films (several of them impish comedies containing traces of his cherished peer Luis Buñuel), the tensions between the things that are said, that are shown, and that remain in ellipsis creates great poignancy. We measure the films’ seeming efforts to give us moments from peoples’ lives in full and are led to consider what cannot be seen, cannot be heard.

Oliveira’s first films focused on young-to-middle-aged people absorbing the inherent pleasures of their surroundings; his last completed feature and short (2012’s Gebo and the Shadow and 2014’s The Old Man of Belem, respectively) focused on elderly people reflecting upon all of their achievements and mistakes. In between came numerous works, several of them (such as his 2001 city symphony Porto of My Childhood) offering layers of ostensible autobiography. What in the films was exactly truth or fiction, though, and the extent to which they spoke about the artist’s life directly were matters that he usually left up to viewers to guess. Like Carl Theodor Dreyer—a filmmaker whose last feature, Gertrud (1964), Oliveira held as a reference point—he honored his characters’ private lives by allowing them to hold onto secrets. And, in keeping with a Catholic upbringing, he paid heed to the value of mystery.