“Living a long life is God’s greatest gift, but it comes at a price. Many of my friends are gone.”
Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997)
Manoel de Oliveira occupies such a unique position in the history of film, and the history of the 20th Century, that it’s hard to find anyone to compare with him. One has to go as far back to the likes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to compare the measured mix of irony, wild invention, Olympian intelligence and fevered delirium. He lived many lives – athlete, racecar driver, wine seller, industrialist, aristocrat, actor, film-maker, Catholic, skeptic, political prisoner – that he constitutes in his life and work, a history of cinema in and of himself. His films are similarly protean – there are documentaries, essay films, opera films, music videos, literary adaptations, filmed theatre, neorealist films, experimental films, literary adaptations, art house films, historical epics.
Of course this protean quality has much to do with the exigencies of Oliveira’s long life. The fact that his career had at least four or five starts, that it was only since he turned 80, that he managed to average a film per year. Undoubtedly, it also stems from a keenly honed survival strategy, coming from a man who at the time of Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, had spent a major part of his life under a dictatorship, spent most of his career managing his family’s holdings, briefly spent time in prison following the release of his film O Acto de Primavera (1963) and who, according to some of the available biographical information, saw his fortune dwindle in the wake of the Revolution. There is much that remains to be known of this highly enigmatic figure.
Born in 1908, Oliveira appeared in Portugal’s second talking film A Canção de Lisboa (1933). His first film was a documentary short, Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931), made under the influence of Walter Ruttman’s city symphonies. His first fiction film was Aniki-Bobo made in 1942, a proto-neorealist work made with non-professional actors. After that, there were sporadic experiments with colour before he made O Acto de Primavera.
It was only in the 1970s, that Oliveira found a regular career in films. This was also the decade where he made what many consider his first major works – Benilde, Doomed Love, Francisca. Doomed Love (1979) is regarded as his masterpiece but is incredibly difficult to see today. It was these films, made at a time when Oliveira believed his career was at an end that paradoxically brought that career into existence.
Is Oliveira’s career then, simply that of a curiosity, fascinating for its essential fact the definitive late bloomer? Can his films stand on its feet, separate from an understanding of his life?
Neither question does justice to our understanding of his films. The truth is they are amazing films that could only have been made by an artist who lives to be a hundred years old. The vision of history, culture and society in titles as diverse as I’m Going Home, A Talking Picture, The Principle of Uncertainty, Inquietude is filtered with rich irony, layered observations and deep ambiguity that is rare for any human individual to acquire, leave alone acquire and internalize, and rarer still to express through sounds and moving images. They, especially the films made in the 21st Century, are manifestations of what Edward Said called “late style” in classical music –the art that comes from a life fully lived, unrestrained by commercial compromises, driven only by the pursuit of formal and thematic concerns heedless of any final summation and resolution.
When describing his film, No; or the Vainglory of Command, Oliveira stated that the history of Portugal derives from major defeats rather than victories. Defeat, Oliveira states, can offer us more to learn than victories. This film, made in 1990, cross-cuts events in Portugal’s doomed Angola War with vignettes narrated by Cabritta (Luis Miguel Cintra – an Oliveira regular), a history teacher conscripted in the army. We see sketches and anecdotes from major events, from the Roman Empire’s conflict with the Lusiad tribes, to the disastrous War of the Alcazar-Quebir, the Age of Discovery and Circumnavigation with the radio at the end announcing the Carnation Revolution. The theme of defeat, failure and folly which Oliveira identifies in the search for national glory and greatness harmonizes into a poetic vision of ambiguity, survival and wisdom. Progress attained not in a straight line, but in circles. An epic of anecdotes and asides rather than events and great figures.
If Oliveira was still optimistic when he made this film, his later works are more critical and in the case of A Talking Picture, by considerable distance the great post-9/11 film, which burns with controlled fury. The satire of cruise voyage and sight-seeing of monuments across the Mediterranean, mocks the notion of nostalgia and satirizes the folly of cultural exchange, simply because every stop taken by the cruise represents a missed opportunity followed by another. Oliveira’s final films – I’m Going Home, The Principle of Uncertainty, Eccentricities of a Blonde Girl, The Strange Case of Angelica – depicts surfaces that break down and quietly implode, with grief, despair and emptiness. They are also, as in the case of Belle toujours (a “sequel” to Belle de Jour), quite funny.
There’s no real final message or grand summation in Oliveira’s films. There isn’t even a “final film”. One of Oliveira’s titles, Memories and Confessions, a documentary shot in 1982, was personally shelved by him, to be released after his death. There is in the films themselves, despite its refined classicism, a permanent sense of the tentative and conditional. There are few “endings”, most of the time, the films simply stop, the characters are never fully consistent. Is Oliveira the last of his kind, the classical stylist who began making films in the silent era? Or is he the first of the modernists? Do his films look back or do they look ahead? It was the fate of his life and his work to ask these questions, to challenge the idea of linear progress, to speak, from the margins of Portugal’s suppressed national cinema, on the central ideas of European history, culture and civilization in the 21st Century.