If it seems impossible to discuss the 99-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira (whose imminent centenary is the impetus for the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s ongoing Oliveira retrospective) without dwelling on his age, Oliveira himself makes it nearly 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 — the most active period of his 77-year career — have increasingly married an interest in the history of civilization 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 stock of Portugal’s place in the new world order; A Talking Picture (2003), 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 Oliveira’s 1990 masterpiece, No, or the Vain Glory of Command, which screens at UCLA on Saturday, April 12. It begins with a regiment of soldiers, en route to Portugal’s African colonial wars of the 1970s, whose lieutenant (frequent Oliveira star Luis Miguel Cintra) regales them 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 film’s 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 — Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich among them — speak to each other in a babel of English, French, Greek and Italian, and somehow manage 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 the 12th century. So it is to be regretted that, of 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