Europe may be weathering tough times, with nations fighting financial ruin and the Euro on the ropes, but the continent has seen much, much worse. Take it from 101 year-old movie director Manoel de Oliveira. A Talking Picture , made when he was a sprightly 94, casts a ruminating gaze on Western civilization as it is found in historical sites along the northern Mediterranean. It’s a calm, pleasant film that captures the full splendor of the sun-kissed coastline, but underneath the leisurely proceedings lies the dark history of a civilization’s struggle for survival.
The first half of A Talking Picture plays like a travelogue, as Portugese history professor Rosa Maria (Leonor Silveira) takes her eight-year old daughter on a cruise through the Mediterranean. They pass through Marseilles, Naples, Athens, Istanbul and Cairo, and at each stop Rosa Maria patiently points out the conflicts, calamities, myths and legends that inform sites like Pompeii, the Parthenon, the Hagia Sofia and the Suez Canal.
It may feel like a PBS documentary at first, with dozens of historical and cultural data effortlessly related. But as mother and daughter encounter a succession of strangers at each location, conversation – both as an act and as an art – emerges as a subject in itself. True to its title, there is a lot of talking in A Talking Picture, and Rosa Maria’s conversational civility, both in her patient parenting and in her interactions with others (particularly a swarthy fellow countryman making advances on her among the Egyptian Pyramids) represent the legacy of three millennia of social interactions. In this way, the film’s dialogue is really one between the past and the present.
The same effect can be gleaned through Oliveira’s camerawork and direction of actors. While the locations are natural, the performances are decidedly mannered: lines are delivered with a syncopated effect (critic Jonathan Rosenbaum likens Oliveira to jazz pianist Thelonious Monk). Characters rarely move within the frame, and are shot like statues or busts, as if they were historical relics in the making. It creates a sort of dramatic diorama effect, where characters stand like cut-outs in distinction to each other and to their surroundings. All of these techniques take the film beyond TV travelogue – here, you get a sense of how people inhabit the spaces of history, and in doing so become part of history themselves.
The second half moves away from historical sites and onto the cruise liner, where the ship’s American captain (John Malkovich) hosts three middle aged European beauties (Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli and Irene Papas) at private dinner. They conduct their conversation in their native tongues (English, French, Italian and Greek), each somehow understanding the others perfectly. Malkovich’s captain gets some smarmy nuggets (“I’m not being kind but I would like to be.”) but the conversation settles into an unshakable sadness, as these women express regret at past romantic betrayals and their present, childless, aging states, the collateral damage for all their success. At this point, a pseudo-feminist emerges that, in hindsight, was there all along in Rosa Maria’s lessons to her daughter: what role may women have in a history largely written by men?
It’s encouraging is that Rosa Maria and her daughter are the youngest characters in the film, the ones most full of life and seeming promise for the future. Which makes what happens in the film’s final moments all the more harrowing. Is Oliveira making an impossibly pessimistic statement on the world he’s inhabited for a century? Or is he simply acknowledging that history and its longstanding tradition of unforeseen violence and undeserving victims, continues to be written? More than any other living director, Oliveira would know that history’s lessons have still to be learned.