As the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s monthlong Manoel de Oliveira retrospective enters its final weekend (including the local premiere of Oliveira’s latest feature, Christopher Columbus: The Enigma), the 99-year-old Portuguese filmmaker agreed to participate in an e-mail interview with L.A. Weekly about his long life and career.
L.A. WEEKLY: Mr. Oliveira, articles about you almost inevitably call attention to your age, in part because it is very impressive, but also because your films, primarily those made since No, or the Vain Glory of Command in 1990, have increasingly dealt with history, civilization and the passage of time. Is it inevitable that, with age, one begins to consider such themes, or are there other reasons that explain your interest in them?
MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: Do we really know what moves us in our lives? My films rest — I won’t say eventually but rather fundamentally — on memory, because it is through memory that we orient our actions, thoughts and feelings. In each of us, age accumulates toward a more intensive knowledge in relation to experienced circumstances, but also parallel to the inclination of each person. I believe that we cannot have true knowledge of the motives that are, in fact, behind our actions. This belongs to the secrets of the gods, and not to us poor mortals.
Another recurring concern of yours has been language. In your film The Cannibals (1988), one character says, “All I can do is say a word: mystery. In Doomed Love (1979), a character comments, “They are not only words; they are feelings.” In Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), the young French actor researching his Portuguese heritage is initially rejected by his relatives because he cannot speak their language. And then there is the wonderful scene in A Talking Picture (2003) in which four people seated at a dinner table speak in different languages but nevertheless are able to understand each other.
Language [the word], as a specific language, is equal to or confused with identity. Certain tribes in India, when a new birth would exceed the nutritional possibilities of the people, would order the death of the newborn in order to maintain the equilibrium of the community. But if the newborn was already baptized, then it was prohibited to kill him. Why? Because baptism gave him a name, and a name is an identity, just like the language of each nation. Herein lies the problem of a universal entity, and the great difficulty of creating a single identity for the European Union, which is constituted by different nations, the vast majority of which are distinguished not only by different languages but also by different climates and idiosyncrasies. The United States, as an extension of Europe (which provided its first settlers), greatly favors the dissemination of English in commercial relations but not in artistic or race relations. But what else can I say about this great … mystery?
Is there something explicitly Portuguese about this interest in words and language? I’m thinking, for example, of the fact that the title No, or the Vain Glory of Command comes from a sermon by the 17th-century Jesuit António Vieira. And there is also José Saramago’s novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a single word (no) ends up changing the course of the 12th century.
No comes from one of the most extraordinary sermons by Vieira: “Non is a terrible word; from whatever side you take it, it is always Non.” And he ends by saying, “Non kills hope, which is the last thing that Nature gave man.” The words The Vain Glory of Command, on the other hand, come from The Lusiads, by Luís de Camões, an extraordinary poet. In relation to the novel by José Saramago, the no is certain, as a yes would be in any other circumstances — an apparently insignificant moment would be sufficient to transform the world or even the universe. Christopher Columbus: The Enigma, on the other hand, ends with these words: “Designs come from on high, and what is left for us is becoming.” Becoming, which is what we Portuguese call saudade or longing — saudade for a paradise lost, or a desire to return to it. Look what is happening with the Middle East, with Israel and its neighborhood, with the Tibetans in China, with Iraq and indiscriminate terrorism, with the alarming pollution that is covering the world, and tell me if it wouldn’t be extraordinary to be able to return to paradise.
Finally, what can you say about your next film project?
I have two projects that I would like to develop this year and next. The first is Singularities of a Blonde Girl, drawn from a short story by Eça de Queiróz, the well-known writer who introduced realism in Portugal; and The Strange Case of Angélica, a story I wrote, which takes place in the Douro region. But the production of films in Portugal, and also outside of Portugal, I believe, is becoming difficult, which concerns me because I think these will be two curious and unexpected films.
And with that, Oliveira noted that time prevented him from answering any additional questions. “But I believe,” he wrote, “that the essential is already said, even if indirectly.” And who is to argue with that?
Thanks to Randal Johnson and Eli Carter for their translation assistance.
THE TALKING PICTURES OF MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA | UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater | Through April 27 | www.cinema.ucla.edu