In Manoel de Oliveira, Randal Johnson’s comprehensive and informative critical evaluation of the Portuguese filmmaker’s body of work for the Contemporary Film Directors series, Johnson insightfully points out that the first 43 years of Oliveira’s film career coincides with the repressive, right wing regime of António de Oliveira Salazar and Estado Novo, an era of severe censorship and authoritarian government that would lead Oliveira to complete only two feature films between 1931 and 1963. This cultural intersection provides the integral framework for deconstructing Oliveira’s idiosyncratic and deeply personal cinema: an aesthetic that was equally forged by creative ideas on the essence of film form as it was by a humanist impulse and uncompromising moral – though not moralistic – stance. This convergence is illustrated from his earliest film, Douro, Faina Fluvial, a chronicle of life along the Douro River inspired by Walter Ruttman’s experimental Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Filmed during the transition between silent and sound, Douro, Faina Fluvial introduces the recurring themes of self-reflexivity and cinematic hybridity – the incorporation of fictional elements in a documentary – that continues to surface throughout Oliveira’s cinema.
However, this idea of cinematic hybridity diverges from the now familiar improvisations that Jean Rouch would incorporate in his ethnographic documentaries (as well as Robert Flaherty and Johan van der Keuken) in that Oliveira emphasizes their resulting disjunction rather than their convergence – a consciousness of the artifice of performance and staging that is further developed in his subsequent film, Acto da Primavera where the staging of the Passion play in the provincial town of Curalha essentially becomes a twice-removed “reality” by having the townspeople reenacting their own performances to create what Johnson describes as a “re-presentation of a representation”, occupying dual roles as participants in the documentary and actors in the filmed play (a hybridity between documentary and fiction that is also employed in Day of Despair, an evocation – and invocation – of Doomed Love author, Camilo Castelo Branco). Johnson further illustrates that this paradigm of dual representation is prefigured in the short documentary, The Painter and the City on the urban aquarelles of local Porto artist, António Cruz, suggesting that reality and truth are mutually exclusive entities, each defining its own relationship to the film image:
In this case, it is a matter of the relationship between pictorial and cinematic representation as, for example, the film cuts from a painting of an urban landscape to a filmic image of the same landscape or makes a painted train ‘come alive’ by cutting to a ‘real’ train coming out of a station. The truth is that they are both representations; what differs is the mode or mechanism of representation.
Moreover, the cross-cutting images of Christ’s agony with the sound of jet fighters and images of the Vietnam conflict and apocalyptic mushroom clouds in Acto da Primavera also reinforces the elements of political allegory that weaves through Oliveira’s cinema, from his first feature film, Aniki-Bóbó in its critical representation of authority that alludes to Salazar’s authoritarian government, to Abraham’s Valley in its dissolution of romantic myth set against an isolated, repressive society, to No or the Vain Glory of Command on the price exacted by colonialism and empire building.
Indeed, the disappearance of King Sebastian during a crusade in northern Africa is a subject that Oliveira continues to draw on as an allegory for contemporary history, both directly – in Sebastian’s disappearance during the disastrous battle of Alcácer-Kebir in No or the Vain Glory of Command, and in The Fifth Empire on his quest for the “consummation of the Empire of Christ in earth” (under the influence of Jesuit priest António Vieira who, in turn, is the subject of Oliveira’s Word and Utopia) – and also indirectly, such as A Talking Picture, where the history of 1578 Alcácer-Kebir exposes the continuing modern day tensions between the Christian and Muslim cultures that led to the tragedy of 9/11. In a sense, Oliveira’s films reflect a national soul in its allusions to the mythologization of King Sebastian – embodying the beginning of the decline of an empire (Sebastian’s disappearance effectively crippled a period of Portuguese exploration that had been ushered by Vasco da Gama and enabled Spain’s domination), and the hope of a messianic figure who can restore its greatness.
The elusiveness of a consummated ideal also connects the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation funded The Past and the Present (ushering what writer Luís de Pina calls the second phase of Portuguese Cinema Novo), Benilde or the Virgin Mary, Doomed Love, and Francisca to form the seminal Tetralogy of Frustrated Love, both thematically, in their portraits of unrequited love set against deeply moralistic, repressive societies, and, as Johnson observes, aesthetically, in illustrating formal traits:
…that begin to articulate his concept of cinematic language: the use of sequence shots and tableaux vivants, a theatrical mise-en-scène, an economical use of camera movement, an emphasis on spoken language, a sustained exploration of the relationship between literature, theater, and the cinema, a certain literalness of adaptation, a specific mode of representation by his actors, and a high degree of self-reflexivity.
Johnson further proposes that the tales of unfulfilled love in Tetralogy of Frustrated Love are critically linked to Oliveira’s subsequent expositions on history and empire in No or the Vain Glory of Command through Le Soulier de satin, which “represents the culmination of Oliveira’s exploration of the relationship between film and theater” that began with Acto da Primavera.
In essence, these formal exercises reflect broader themes of time, memory, mortality, history, and legacy that not only reflect on the process of aging and passage (in films such as Voyage to the Beginning of the World, Porto of My Childhood and I’m Going Home), but also articulates the integral question on the human journey itself, a preoccupation that Oliveira poetically expresses during his appearance in Wim Wenders’s Lisbon Story:
God exists. He created the universe… We want to imitate God and that’s why there are artists. Artists want to re-create the world as if they were small gods. They constantly think and rethink about history, about life, about things that are happening in the world, or that we think happened because we believe that they did. After all, we believe in memory, because everything has happened …but who can guarantee that what we imagine to have happened actually happened? Whom should we ask?
…The world according to this supposition is an illusion. The only true thing is memory, but memory is an invention… In the cinema, the camera can fix a moment, but that moment has already passed, and the image is a phantasm of that moment; we are no longer certain that the moment ever existed outside of the film. Or is the film a guarantee of the existence of the moment? I don’t know. The more I think about it, the less I know. We live in permanent doubt. Nevertheless, our feet are on the ground, we eat, and we enjoy life.
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