“A long life is a gift from God, but it has its price.”
—dialogue from Manoel de Oliveira’s Voyage to the Beginning of the World
How many filmmakers have lived to witness their own centenaries? In 2006, the veteran Hollywood director Vincent Sherman died less than a month short of his, but it had been more than 20 years since Sherman set foot on a movie set. For the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who turns 100 on December 11 and who is the subject of a monthlong retrospective beginning this weekend at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, those same two decades have been the richest of his career. Of Oliveira’s 29 feature films, more than half have been made since 1990 (when he was a mere 82), while only two predate 1970. That alone would be enough to ensure Oliveira a place in the film-history canon, to say nothing of the Guinness Book of World Records: the world’s oldest living filmmaker! The only working director who got his start in silent films! All of that is true, and yet the greatness of Oliveira’s work is something that transcends novelty.
His is a career marked by gaps longer than some entire filmographies. Although Oliveira directed his first film, the silent documentary short Labor on the Douro River, in 1931 (by which time he had already logged stints as a pole vaulter, race-car driver, factory foreman and actor), it wasn’t until 1942 that he managed to make his debut feature, Aniki-Bóbó, a charming children’s film about two schoolboys competing for the affections of a female classmate. It is a conventional work by comparison with Oliveira’s later films, but one whose location shooting, synchronized sound and cast of nonprofessional actors anticipated the coming wave of Italian neorealism. At the time of its release, however, Aniki-Bóbó was a flop, which, combined with Oliveira’s staunch opposition to the rule of Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, meant it would be another 20 years before Oliveira could direct a second feature. That film, Rite of Spring (1963), is a version of the Passion Play as performed by the residents of a rural village in northern Portugal and is rife with the impish anachronisms (a party of tourists in contemporary garb driving through the play) and self-reflexivity (Oliveira himself is seen at one point, directing the film) that would become part of the director’s hallmarks.
Since then, Oliveira has been busily making up for lost time. Between 1971 and 1981, he directed four films (The Past and the Present, Benilde or the Virgin Mother, Doomed Love and Francisca), known collectively as the “tetralogy of frustrated love,” in which he perfected a grandly idiosyncratic style that can seem particularly foreign to first-time viewers. Like the French director Robert Bresson, Oliveira strives for an intentional blankness in his actors, who often deliver their lines directly to the camera, and who play scenes in a kind of self-aware pantomime. There are also deliberately theatrical sets and props, literary voice-overs, intertitles, and many other breakages of the mythical “fourth wall” (which, for Oliveira, has always been one more orthodoxy awaiting immolation). Oliveira has said that he considers cinema to be the sum of all other art forms, and the achievement of his own films is that they embody that synthesis while managing to preserve their literary, theatrical, musical and painterly component parts.
That is, admittedly, a somewhat academic explanation of Oliveira, and there is no denying that his films are not for the faint of intellect. (They are also invariably enhanced by at least an undergraduate knowledge of world history.) But in Oliveira’s best work, his unique approach to cinema is hypnotic, highly original and anything but boring. By any measure, Doomed Love (1978) is a masterpiece, an antiromantic romantic epic with compositions that evoke Renaissance painting and a convulsive narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat for nearly four and a half hours. Four and a half hours? I admit that sounds like a tall order, but keep in mind that several of the most popular films of the past century — Gone With the Wind,Lawrence of Arabia, Titanic — are scarcely shorter, and considerably less deserving of your time.
Based on the novel by 19th-century writer Camilo Castelo Branco, Doomed Love tells a Romeo and Juliet–like story of two young lovers whose feuding patriarchs would rather see their children die of heartache than risk losing face. Only, in the world of Oliveira, when people speak of things like undying passion and sacrifice, they rarely break a sweat. (Watch for the climactic “duel” in which one man slowly raises his hands to strangle another, who in turn stands idly by allowing it to happen.) It is the film that established Oliveira’s international reputation; when Doomed Love premiered in New York at the 1980 edition of that annual showcase of up-and-coming filmmaking talent known as New Directors/New Films, its maker was already 72.
If I seem to dwell on Oliveira’s age, that’s because Oliveira himself makes it impossible not to. His life, after all, has now lasted longer than the reign of entire monarchies and empires. (He is even a few years older than the Portuguese Republic, which wasn’t founded until 1911.) And his films of the past 20 years have increasingly married an interest in the history of civilizations to an encroaching sense of mortality — Oliveira’s own, and that of mankind. He is particularly interested in the brave, foolhardy and barbarous things done by men in the name of God, king and country, from the Portuguese discoveries of the 15th century to the religious wars of the new millennium. This is the encompassing theme of movies like Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), in which an Oliveira-like director (beautifully played by Marcello Mastroianni in his final screen performance) contemplates his place in the cosmos while taking a literal trip down memory lane; A Talking Picture (2003) — the film that lends its title to UCLA’s retrospective — where a travelogue through the lasting achievements of western civilization is interrupted by a devastating post-9/11 coda; and Oliveira’s latest, Christopher Columbus: The Enigma (2007), which stars the director as a historian who devotes his life to proving the titular explorer was of Portuguese origin.
This fin-de-siècle (or fin-du-monde) sensibility achieves its greatest expression in another Oliveira masterpiece, No, or the Vain Glory of Command (1990), in which a regiment of soldiers en route to fight in Portugal’s African colonial wars of the 1970s are regaled by their lieutenant (frequent Oliveira star Luís Miguel Cintra) with a potent summary of their nation’s military defeats through the centuries. (Why defeats and not victories? “Because,” Oliveira says in an interview included on the film’s Portuguese DVD release, “defeats are richer than victories. Defeat calls man to himself.”) Meanwhile, onscreen we witness a surreal pageant of historical reenactment — Viriathus and the Lusitanians pushing back the Roman army; King Sebastian fighting the Moroccans in the battle of Alcácer Quibir — starring the actors from the African convoy in many of the key roles.
The title comes from a poem by the 17th-century Jesuit writer António Vieira, and it speaks to Oliveira’s career-long fascination with words and language. (In an indelible scene from A Talking Picture, a quartet of dinner guests speak to each other in a babel of English, French, Greek and Italian, somehow managing to understand one another.) We are close here to the work of Portugal’s other reigning artistic titan, the octogenarian novelist Jose Saramago, whose 1998 The History of the Siege of Lisbon concerns a publishing-house proofreader who changes a single word — not “no” in this case, but rather “not” — in a historical text and in turn alters the course of 12th-century events. And it is to be regretted that, among his many literary adaptations, Oliveira has not yet taken on Saramago. He is perhaps the only director alive who could do full justice to that epic, funereal consideration of self and empire, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.
Keeping up with Oliveira isn’t easy. At 99, he seems to be omnipresent, appearing at Cannes last May (where he premiered a whimsical short film about an imagined meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and Pope John XXII), at the European Film Awards in Berlin in December, and just last month at a centennial tribute hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I saw Oliveira there one night, walking so briskly across the lobby that by the time I pointed him out to a friend, he had vanished into a waiting car. It is said he will not come to UCLA, but that may have as much to do with the lengthy flight as with the fact that he is currently in preproduction on a new film, The Strange Case of Angelica, reportedly based on the Eça de Queirós short story “Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl.” In one of Oliveira’s few personal concessions to vanity, glory and legacy, he has also made one film, Memories and Confessions, that he refuses to have shown until after his death. Even Father Time, if and when he ever does catch up to old Manoel, will be at a loss to stop his prolific output.
THE TALKING PICTURES OF MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA | UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater | Through Sun., April 27 | www.cinema.ucla.edu