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August 9, 2008

Manoel de Oliveira by Randal Johnson

oliveira_johnson.gifIn 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.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 09, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Film Related Reading


Thanks for the info on the book, which i wasn't aware of. Such is the fluid charm of Aniki Bobo, it's easy to miss political criticism- i certainly enjoyed its lightness of touch, compared with sometimes overstated, even to my mind a little ponderous, messages in some Italian neo-realist films. Watching Aniki Bobo, Vigo's freedom came to mind- though of course his lyricism had a political undercurrent too. I only hope Oliveira gets wider recognition on reaching 100 (due shortly). I see him as an enlightened humanist, wanting a fairer world, even though some fo his films and concerns are considered aloof or aristocratic rather than populist.

It was Abraham Valley which more than anything enticed me to up sticks and try for a life in North Portugal- with disastrous financial results it turned out, and my hopes of getting to meet him fell through, but i wouldn't have missed the experience for anything. We were centred on Caminha, which by coincidence was the starting point for Voyage to the Beginning of the World- my favourite spot in the world is even facing (like Mastroianni + the magnificent Leonor Silveira) across the Minho estuary, towards his former Jesuit college in Galicia. I presume Oliveira's longevity is in large part down to his earlier sporting prowess, as well as an extraordinary zest for life. He certainly changed my life.

Posted by: John Davies on Sep 10, 2008 6:28 AM | Permalink

Wow, that sounds like a great adventure anyway. I did get a sense from his No, or the Vain Glory of Command (which I'm still slogging through writing about) that he seems to be conveying a sentiment about Portugal being left behind (economically and well as in international status), and that "underdevelopment" is what is represented almost like an old fashioned-ness in his films. But yes, not in a reactionary or elitist way, but as an idealist. I understand from the book that he was an heir to a vineyard too, so maybe there is something to that glass of wine a day regimen that also contributes to his longevity. :)

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Sep 10, 2008 9:19 PM | Permalink

What a strange mix No...Vainglory is! I wasn't so keen on the kitschy section, not quite sure exactly what that style was intended to convey (will be interested in Johnson's + your take on it), and the otherwise fine battle scene betrayed the budget, but it's admirable for depicting disasters in Portuguese history and imperialism without any of the nationalism that has me grinding my teeth. The stately Angolan opening often used to come to mind on a particular waterside walk with lush vegetation in Wales. I would love to see Douro Faina Fluvial (which i think he began filming in 1929, so he's now close to different 10 decades of film-making!)- seeing the Douro and the area where Abraham Valley was filmed was glorious: the beauty really does live up to expectations.

Posted by: John Davies on Sep 11, 2008 2:13 PM | Permalink

It's been some years since i saw No...Vainglory, and as my expectations were pretty massive (thanks to Gilbert Adair mainly) i was not only perplexed at times, but a touch disappointed. But then it's a film that counfounds and undercuts any expectations based on Hollywood dominance and so many "isms" that may be little more than kitsch, as Kundera argued in Unbearable Lightness of Being. So, is it No to imperialism, No to Hollywood, No to battle scenes that rely on grandeur + budget not intelligence, No to the comforts of national myth-making, No to passing fashions, No even to auteurism as a judgment based on certain + narrowly defined consistency? In today's Guardian, British critic Peter Bradshaw, (favourably) reviewing Rohmer's Astrea + Celadon (which i've not seen), compares Rohmer to Oliveira. And rightly, as both have followed their own path without concern for fads + critical reactions.

Posted by: John Davies on Sep 12, 2008 9:06 AM | Permalink

Yeah, the Garden of Eden-ish segue seemed really bizarre in the context of the rest of the film, but I think it had to do with the idea of converging history and myth, which is what is reinforced in the Sebastian sequence.

I was able to see Douro Faina Fluvial a few weeks ago at the NGA retrospective on Oliveira. It's certainly a lot more experimental than anything I've seen of his work. There's something almost expressionistic about it in the way he works with light.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Sep 12, 2008 10:16 AM | Permalink

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