Born on this day in 1908, Manoel de Oliveira turns 105 today. The challenge of wrapping one’s head around what such longevity means has sparked an ongoing list of #thingsManoeldeOliveiraisolderthan: Jean-Luc Godard‘s mother. Any Hollywood studio. Over 130 sovereign states. And so on.
And yet, as Ekkehard Knörer notes at Cargo, the man carries on working. Just last month, the Portugal News reported that Oliveira “is ready to start making a new film, O Velho do Restelo, although he has so far lacked the finance to do so. The film’s producer, however, told Lusa News Agency that he hopes to have enough funds soon to start shooting early next year. The title, which means ‘the old man of Restelo’ is a reference to a nay-saying character in the epic poem The Lusiads by 16th-century poet Luís Vaz de Camões.”
Five years ago, on the eve of Oliveira’s 100th birthday, Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing for Film Comment, noted that the filmmaker has “pointed out himself that it’s largely been his filmmaking that has been keeping him alive.”
Even so, this doesn’t automatically validate the work being produced, at least beyond proposing that he may actually have more to tell us about the 19th century than James Ivory. Like Oliveira’s celebrated early stints as a champion pole-vaulter, diver, and race-car driver, you might say that his age adds more to his legend than to any better understanding of his filmography…. 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 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.”
For more on Oliviera, see Acquarello, Manuel Dos Santos Fonseca and Rob Edelman (Film Reference), and Randal Johnson (Senses of Cinema).
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