We gathered a first round of critical response to Gebo and the Shadow when it premiered in Venice and then screened in Toronto in the fall of 2012. Now it’s screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York through Tuesday.
“As if being the oldest living filmmaker in the world were not distinction enough, Manoel de Oliveira may also be the canniest at wresting cinematic gold from the barest of means,” writes Tony Pipolo for Artforum. “Give him a text, a few actors, and a place to set up his camera, and watch the mundane metamorphose into art. His new film, based on a play by Raul Brandão and set in a small Portuguese village in the late nineteenth century, is as minimalist as the situation it depicts. Embracing rather than masking his theatrical source, Oliveira even cuts to an exterior view of the modest house where the action takes place to mark the end of each ‘act.'”
“As usual,” writes Nicolas Rapold at the L, “Oliveira gives his characters civilized discourse to chew over, which is curious, amused, or stolid by turns. Experience is written into the faces and pedigree of the stars he recruits: ever-ruminative Michael Lonsdale as the long-suffering bookkeeper, Gebo; a matronly Claudia Cardinale as his scandal-averse wife, Doroteia; even Jeanne Moreau as a playful visitor. This is the family table as first a bastion of routine and bread-breaking camaraderie, but later a site of reckoning—where you’re stuck when the knock at the door comes.”
Oliveira’s “last three films—Gebo is preceded by 2009’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl and 2010’s The Strange Case of Angelica—have been brusque, stiff, and thick-skinned,” writes Max Nelson for Reverse Shot. “All three move at roughly the same odd rhythm, abrupt and efficient in their deployment of narrative information but languid in their movements and stately in tone. Oliveira’s troupe of recurring actors—including Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra, and Ricardo Trêpa, all of whom appear in Gebo—rarely soften, deepen, modulate, or fine-tune their voices when they address one another. Instead, they proceed at the steady, even tempo of performers in a staged reading, only occasionally interjecting a sudden gesture or outburst of emotion. Likewise, the visual language of Oliveira’s recent movies is carved-down, simple and precise, heavily reliant on long, static takes and theatrical, overtly presentational camera setups. Each of these films could be taken as a kind of back-to-basics exercise, an attempt to make do, in a period when seemingly infinite importance is attached to technological innovation in the movies, with early cinema’s simpler, narrower expressive vocabulary.”
Writing for Slant, Jesse Cataldo notes that “in a quiet, delicate manner, a man whose career began 80 years ago tells another story about the heavy burden of personal history, the way actions and events linger on long after they’ve slid into the past.”
“Oliveira originally sought out his countryman Brandão’s seldom-performed play (translated into French for the film) in order to comment on Portugal’s crippling recent economic crisis, implicit in the characters’ different reactions to their places at society’s bottom,” notes Aaron Cutler in the Voice. “The poignant fragility of their circumstances is embodied by the aging veteran actors who play them, in particular Oliveira’s two leads. Cardinale was idolized in films by Fellini, Leone, and Visconti half a century ago, and here imbues Doroteia with the weight of a faded beauty queen acting out an idyllic past. The pudgy octogenarian Lonsdale, in contrast, has long been part of the French film tradition of schlumpy everymen whose characters live in the shadow of their beloveds.”
“This is not a tale of perpetually thwarted romantic love, as in Doomed Love (79) or The Satin Slipper (85), but about what is left over when poverty makes such emotions an impossible luxury, and how best to cope with the lack,” writes R. Emmet Sweeney for Film Comment.
“Gebo doesn’t aim for the transcendent shock that concludes A Talking Picture or the mischievous coup de cinéma in The Strange Case of Angelica,” writes the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott. “It is quieter, more compact and less thematically ambitious than those—an intriguing minor composition by a shrewd and skillful master of the art.”
For the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, it’s an “exquisite yet anguished spectacle, a grand piece of cinematic chamber music for a cast of mighty soloists.”
“By the time its sudden conclusion hits you with the sort of multivalent power that we’ve come to expect from Oliveira’s seemingly offhand endings, the film’s questions are evident,” writes Carson Lund at In Review Online. “How to live out one’s days before the final bell tolls?… Safely but unremarkably or dangerously but freely?”
Update, 5/31: “Although Gebo is set mostly in a restricted physical space, Oliveira’s uncanny sensitivity opens out onto a truly larger one—a visual and sonic landscape of delicate intensity that implicates the periphery as much as the center,” writes Michael Blum for Hyperallergic.