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.
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