A genial country doctor, Carlo Paiva (Luís Miguel Cintra) strikes up a polite conversation with a privileged widower named Paulino Cardeano (Ruy de Carvalho) at a dining hall and is immediately captivated by the beguiling, almost forbidding presence of Cardeano’s mannered, but inscrutable adolescent daughter Ema (Cécile Sanz de Alba). But Carlo is neither the first nor the only person to be seduced by Ema’s enigmatic countenance. Projecting a wide eyed and intense, yet opaque gaze, Ema’s seemingly fragile, yet accessible beauty wields a potent, siren-like intoxication throughout the idyllic plantation community, luring unsuspecting cyclists and motorists ever closer to the intrespassable walls of the Cardeano estate every time she steps out onto the veranda to the point where the distracted commuters miscalculate the bend of the road and crash into the wall upon executing a delayed, overcompensated turn (then subsequently – and amusingly – plead, albeit in vain, to the town officials to make Ema’s presence on the elevated, private terrace an enforceable traffic citation). It is perhaps this sinister and unwittingly destructive impulse that seems to invariably surround (if not, gravitate towards) Ema that causes Paulino to take heed of his friends’ advice during a dinner party to marry off his beautiful daughter as early as possible in order to avoid such embarrassing temptation. Years later, a suitable (though admittedly not ideal) opportunity presents itself when Carlo and Ema (Leonor Silveira) would again meet on a more somber occasion, as the recently widowed physician is summoned to the Cardeano estate during the wake of Ema’s stern and pious aunt Augusta (Laura Soveral) in order to attend to a mysteriously ailing servant named Branca (Dina Treno). Carlo’s attraction to Ema – deepened by his perception of mutual understanding for each other’s wounded vulnerability – results in a polite, if dispassionate, courtship and marriage. Struggling to adjust to married life, Ema, often left alone during Carlo’s all too frequent emergency house calls (a vocational inconvenience that has also led Carlo to arrange for separate bedrooms), finds her only solace in the silent, understanding gaze of her devoted, deaf-mute housekeeper, Ritinha (Isabel Ruth). However, when Carlo’s sisters drive the proud Ritinha away with baseless allegations of theft, Ema finds herself completely estranged from her former life and betrayed by the emotional insensitivity of her diligent and well-intentioned, but insensible husband.
Adapted from the novel by Agustina Bessa-Luís, Abraham’s Valley is an elegantly realized, suffusively sensual, and understatedly haunting portrait of idle privilege, objectification, isolation, and passion. Manoel de Oliveira integrates his vocational rooting in the tradition of documentary and neorealist filmmaking through lingering, contextual images of landscape and milieu (most notably, in the images of viticulture and the agricultural terraces of the valley) that reinforce the interrelationship between character and environment with classicist aesthetics (particularly, literature and theater) to create an inherently anachronistic tone that is both contemporary and immediately relevant, yet tenaciously traditional and seemingly archaic: extensive voice-overs that retain literal fidelity to the written novel; static camera compositions (usually shot in long takes) that recall the bounded canvas framing of an art painting; formally posed characters shot in frontality that is commonly associated with (fourth wall) theatrical direction as well as two-dimensional Byzantine iconography. Oliveira’s recurring motif of mirrors and visual reflections further illustrate, not only the culturally perpetuated objectification of women into iconic images (in which the definition of the ideal woman is set, but pliable, embodied, not by the willful Ema, but by the uncomplaining Ritinha: dumb, servile, handsome, and virginal), but also the film’s overarching theme of surrogacy and imitation. Note Ema’s continued attraction to Vesuvio – a town named after the volcano near the Bay of Naples in southern Italy – a place that, unlike its volatile namesake, is cool and temperate and, like her fleeting affairs, devoid of consuming intensity. In the end, it is this realization of the insurmountable disparity between reality and imitation that allows Ema to break free from the bounds of her superficial and vacuous existence – a sobered acknowledgement, not of an exhausted struggle for the elusive, but the gullible, accepted self-delusion of its facile, illusory attainment.
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