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.