Daily | Manoel de Oliveira, 1908 – 2015

Manoel de Oliveira

Manoel de Oliveira

“Portuguese film director Manoel de Oliveira died on Thursday at the age of 106, producer Luís Urbano said, quoting family sources” The AFP reports: “The filmmaker made more than 50 films, including features and documentaries, over the course of a career that began in 1931.”

On the eve of Oliveira’s 100th birthday, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in Film Comment:

If he deserves to be regarded as a master—and I believe he does—his mastery belongs partially in an eccentric category of his own invention, comparable to that of Thelonious Monk as an idiosyncratic jazz pianist. And it’s a mastery of sound and image that took shape fairly early—even though, as a director of actors, his foregrounding of artificial styles of performance doesn’t always enhance the technical gifts of his players. A few of Oliveira’s films are worth seeing principally for their actors: Voyage to the Beginning of the World (97) offers Marcello Mastroianni’s last screen performance (as an Oliveira surrogate); the all-star cast of A Talking Picture includes Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich (in a hilarious turn as a charming if self-absorbed American cruise ship captain), Irene Papas, Stefania Sandrelli, and Leonor Silveira; [Ricardo] Trêpa’s best turn probably comes in the decorous but static The Fifth Empire, in which he plays clueless, despotic King Sebastian I (1544–78); and Michel Piccoli is especially fine in representing the joys and sorrows of getting old in I’m Going Home (01), perhaps the most accessible of Oliveira’s fiction films.

Reviewing The Conquered Conqueror, Oliveira’s contribution to the omnibus film Centro Histórico (2012) here in Keyframe, Aaron Cutler noted in 2013 that Oliviera “has been exploring how people try to preserve their own histories since early on in his filmmaking career. The four films for which he first gained international acclaim (collectively known as ‘The Tetralogy of Frustrated Love,’ and made between 1971 and 1981) all deal with people attempting to reach seemingly unattainable love objects…. In Leon Cakoff’s film Manoel de Oliveira Absoluto (2010)—a long recorded interview with the filmmaker included as an extra on The Cinema Guild’s exquisite home video release of [The Strange Case of Angelica]—Oliveira claims that the filmmakers he values make distinctions between public and private life. No matter how much the films show, their characters maintain mysteries and secrets to be hidden from view…. Oliveira’s own cinema has valued the distinction between public and private histories, with love often being what differentiates the two.”

“Oliveira’s work represents, perhaps paradigmatically, the art-versus-money divide that has long characterized filmmaking in diverse national contexts,” wrote Randal Johnson for Senses of Cinema in 2003. “Almost from the beginning of his career Oliveira has expressed opposition to conventional forms of cinematic expression driven by commercial imperatives. In 1933 he published a short text titled ‘O Cinema e o Capital’ (‘Cinema and Capital’) in which he argues that the commercial organisation of American cinema has smothered and subjugated the artist. Rather than bend to commercial demands, he has followed his own artistic vision.”

“The first phase of Oliveira’s work, what he calls “the stage of the people,” was dominated by an intense dialogue between documentary and fiction,” note Manuel Dos Santos Fonseca and Rob Edelman in Film Reference. The second phase “began in 1972 and was characterized by a more complete expression of the impulse towards fiction. His work featured a concomitant change of objectives: the ‘stage of the people’ is replaced by the ‘stage of the bourgeoisie.’ … What is truly amazing about Oliveira is that he scripted and directed one film per year through the 1990s—quite an accomplishment for an octogenarian/nonagenarian.”

Updates: “He had found no favor under the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, when he was condemned to years of silence and inactivity,” writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. “After the dictator died in 1970, Oliveira still found it difficult to make films, being charged with the sin of ‘elitism’ under the socialists. As a result, he had to wait to fully explore his principal themes of desire, fear, guilt and perdition, underscored by the very Portuguese sentiment of the ‘consolation of melancholy.’ … In 2014 Oliveira was appointed grand officier of the Légion d’honneur. Oliveira continued to tantalize, having stipulated that Visita ou Memórias e Confissões (Memories and Confessions), made in 1982, was only to be released after his death.”

From Vitor Pinto at Cineuropa: “In 2011, when interviewed by a local daily, 103-year-old Oliveira talked about his life but also about his death: ‘I am not at all afraid. I fear pain, not death. Once you die, your spirit becomes free.’ His wish was to continue working until his death, and that is just what he did. Already physically debilitated, he managed to shoot part of his last short film, O Velho do Restelo, in the garden of his Porto home.”

“Almost as old as cinema itself, Mr. Oliveira often seemed like a filmmaker out of time, or perhaps of many times, a 20th-century modernist drawn to the themes and traditions of earlier eras,” writes Dennis Lim for the New York Times. “Critics noted that his age, combined with his belated coming-of-age as an artist, granted him a certain freedom. Reviewing his 1998 movie Inquietude, the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma said of Mr. Oliveira, ‘He is sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce.'”

“One of my favorite moments of the last year was watching Agnès Varda’s series From Here to There, which featured an amazing sequence of Oliveira doing a tap-dance routine, an activity of which he was apparently very fond—and one that may seem trivial, until you remember that he had already lived for over a century.” Craig Hubert at Artinfo: “My favorite period of Oliveira’s career was certainly the final batch of films he made, especially Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, 2009, and The Strange Case of Angelica, 2010—but those choices may well be influenced by the fact that so much of his work is not available, especially in the United States. Hopefully his death will reignite interest in his large body of films.”

At the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes that Oliveira’s four-hour 1979 miniseries Doomed Love was “his breakthrough. The film introduced festival-going audiences to what would become the director’s signature style: minimalist, artificial, and easygoing, pitched somewhere between the long-take modernism of the European art film and the classical tradition of 19th century literature and theater…. His work embraced painted backdrops (and, later, ersatz digital effects) and artificial staging, creating a half-real twilight world where reality and theater and past and present seemed to intersect. From Abraham’s Valley and Inquietude to later gems like Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl and his Belle de Jour take-off Belle toujours, he created a wide-ranging, deeply idiosyncratic body of work, often drawing on Portuguese literature and working with a regular company of Portuguese and French actors.”

“It is regrettable,” writes Michael Smith, “that Oliveira had trouble making features in the last few years of his life—not due to ill health but rather due to the difficulty of getting his films insured. He was not able to realize, for instance, his dream project of adapting Machado de Assis’s masterful short story ‘The Devil’s Church,’ although one hopes that another filmmaker, perhaps Portugal’s Pedro Costa, may end up inheriting Oliveira’s finished screenplay. Still, he was able to complete eight films after his 100th birthday and one can only hope that his death will bring renewed interest to this work.”

“Though he completed some short films afterward, Gebo and the Shadow would be Oliveira’s final feature-length effort, and it was good way to go out,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “The movie’s sense of mortal urgency and existential discord is palpable throughout—it’s a meditation on the fear of dying without achieving one’s full potential, a feeling that no doubt kept Oliveira going through the decades.”

Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw has a favorite, A Talking Picture: “For my money, this is one of the great cult movies, whose oddity reveals Oliveira’s singular inspiration.”

For the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, “the secret to Oliveira’s vastly time-spanning art is its intimacy; his films don’t stride across time with Jovian thunder but catch glimmers and reflections of celestial light in modest, daily settings. It’s as if he were playing, with a childlike whimsy, a game of historical Twister, keeping one foot in the centuries of the ancient classics and the other on neon-lit city streets.”

Updates, 4/3: “The critics Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum and the academic and festival programmer Richard Pena were his early American champions who helped make the case for his greatness,” writes Patrick Z. McGavin at “‘How can I persuade you that the best new movie I’ve seen this year, the only one conceivably tinged with greatness, is a voluptuous four-and-a-half hour Portuguese costume melodrama?’ Rosenbaum began his seminal 1981 review of Oliveira’s fantastic Doomed Love. The turning point for many was the 1990 Toronto Film festival, which put together an exhaustive and nearly complete retrospective of his work. What had been for many so elusive and fragmentary was now clearly in our grasp. I remember seeing about seven or eight of the films at Toronto that year, and I was hooked.”

My Case (1986) with English subtitles

For Time‘s Richard Corliss, “the miracle of Oliveira’s career is that the quality of his movies outstripped their quantity…. Oliveira’s films were never vivacious, exactly. He preferred a steady pace and gaze… But given that measured pulse, alert audiences could find manifold treats and connections — like the scenes of Portuguese workmen, singing of the Douro River, that appear both in Oliveira’s first film [Douro, Faina Fluvial, 1931] and in The Secret Life of Angelica, 69 years later.”

“It’s worth seeking out 1942’s Aniki Bóbó, which beautifully captures the streetlife of Porto,” suggests David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “And 1993’s Abraham’s Valley is a three-hour film poem which deserves to sit next to the slow cinema classics of Béla Tarr and Theo Angelopoulos…. His late theatrical style—akin to late Alain Resnais—was also one of his most satisfying and distinctive.”

At Cineuropa, Vitor Pinto collects tributes from prominent Portuguese figures and a few of the actors Oliveira worked with.

Updates, 4/10: “French critic Michel Chion coined the term ‘cinematographic irony’ to describe Oliveira’s style, meaning that his films draw no distinction between the significant and the insignificant, the mundane and the absurd,” writes Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader. “A Talking Picture is one of the most powerful examples of the director’s irony: set in the present and depicting a tour of ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean, the film suggests how the ancient world might regard us. The characters seem trivial, at times even silly (the film features what is surely John Malkovich’s funniest screen performance), yet they attain a poignant dignity by placing themselves before images of the eternal. Along with Doomed Love, it is one of the most overwhelming movies I’ve seen on a big screen.”

“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,” writes Aaron Cutler in the L. “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.”

Lumière is putting together quite a special section on Oliveira—in Spanish.

Update, 4/25: David Ehrenstein‘s put together a tribute at DC’s.

Update, 4/27:

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