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Related Reading: Manoel de Oliveira by Randal Johnson.


Vale Abraão, 1993
[Abraham's Valley]

SilveiraA 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.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo, 1997
[Voyage to the Beginning of the World]

Mastroianni/Doria/Silveira On the overgrown grounds of an abandoned and dilapidated health resort ironically called The Grand Hotel of Pezo on the outskirts of the Portuguese town, the aging filmmaker, Manoel (Marcello Mastroianni) recounts a familiar tale by a Brazilian author named Catulo Searence of a poet living in a hut overlooking the river who would diligently till his land during the day and row his canoe across the river at dusk to visit the woman he loved. As the story goes, one evening, the poet rowed to the other side of the river in order to see his beloved only to find her in the arms of another man and, as he returned home heartbroken, further discovered that a landslide had, during his absence, washed away his hut and his field, compelling him to express his resigned sentiment with the words, "Saudade and the fallen land, a portion I dreamt of." The conversation, which occurs midway through the film, evokes an earlier scene in which Manoel and his traveling companions, actors Judite (Leonor Silveira), Afonso (Jean-Yves Gautier), and Duarte (Diogo Dória) discuss the French-born Afonso's sentiment of saudade, a nostalgic yearning to connect with his unknown (if not mystified) ancestral history in Portugal that he has only known through his late father's colorful memories of his early life in the insular, pastoral village from which he was eager to escape in a quixotic search for adventure beyond the mountains (and into the throes of the Spanish Civil War). It is a sense of profound, unrequited longing that similarly haunts Manoel as the group travels through personally relevant places and landmarks from his childhood that have been inalterably marked by time and have since lost their significance in the contemporary. However, as the two figurative searchers make their cultural pilgrimage through the land of their cherished memories - one, rooted in a past that no longer exists, and the other, to a past that had only existed in his dreams - their melancholic, personal journey becomes, less a recognition of the physical than a cognition of the ephemeral.

Evoking the imaginative exoticism of novelist Jules Verne's journalistic, science fiction travel adventures and inspired in part by the real-life experience of film crewmember Yves Afonso during the shooting of a Franco-Portuguese production, Voyage to the Beginning of the World is a serenely realized and thoughtful meditation on memory, nostalgia, cultural connection, and mortality. Filming two individual, but sentimentally interrelated stories of displacement and longing - a native's unrequited sense of saudade - Manoel de Oliveira implements distinctive filming strategies that serve as visual leitmotifs for each character's existential state. The frail and elderly Manoel's nostalgic sight-seeing excursion through personally relevant places and indelible artifacts from his youth is presented through the continuum of long stretches of roads shot from a rearward-pointing camera that provides, not only a symbolic illustration of the life path through which the filmmaker has traveled (and figuratively looks back on at the twilight of his days), but also a reminder of time's constant progression as the flowing images become transient, existential markers that soon fade into the background and are replaced by other, equally fleeting milestones. In turn, the foreign born Afonso's journey is chronicled through static long and high angle shots that reinforce his sense of disconnected cultural and ancestral history, an estrangement that is initially (and amusingly) bemoaned by his skeptical aunt Maria Afonso (Isabel de Castro) when Afonso is unable to communicate in their family's native language. (Note Oliveira's elegantly constructed narrative transition from Manoel to Afonso's point of view that is illustrated through a high angle crane shot that terminates Manoel's recurring leitmotif of the slowly unwinding asphalt roads and introduces the long shot of the cobblestone streets of a quaint town square as the travelers ask a group of local villagers for directions). Capturing the cognitive confluence between past and present, memory and reality, longing and nostalgia, Voyage to the Beginning of the World serves as a lucidly articulate and poignant exploration into the soul's elusive search for permanence amid the disorienting transience of malleable, human history.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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