An older friend of mine once said that great Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira is like a fine wine: He gets better with age. His films, the epitome of art-house cinema, are often long, slow-paced, contemplative, iconistic in composition and pedantic, and have equally captivated and frustrated critics and his small fan following alike.
For most cinephiles, Oliveira is primarily known for being the oldest “active filmmaker in the world. At 101, he continues to produce at least one movie a year with remarkable aptitude, astonishing freshness and clarity of vision. His recent rush of productions feels, in many ways, an attempt to make up for the lost years that hampered his work during the ruling dictatorship from 1926 to 1974.
Born to a wealthy family, Oliveira directed his first film, the 21-minute short documentary “Douro, Faina Fluvial (Labor on the Douro River) in 1931, a time when Portuguese cinema was undergoing the transition from silent to sound. The sensibilities of silent cinema, and the aesthetics and conceptions of documentary filmmaking, would influence the larger bulk of works.
In the following 30 years, Oliveira would release only one full-length feature, “Aniki-Bobó in 1942. His real breakthrough arrived in 1963 with the magnificent “Acto de Primavera (Rite of Spring). A chronicle of the reenactment of the Passion play by the fervent denizens of a small northern village, “Spring is neither a full-fledged documentary nor fiction. Part a recording of the making of the play, part a dissection of the filmmaking process, and part the story of Christ, Oliveira blurs the line between documentary and fiction, a technique he developed, and mastered, over the following 40 years.
The overt, unconcealed literariness of his works is another fundamental component of Oliveira’s oeuvre that would emerge in later films, reaching great extremes as with 1985’s “Le Soulier de Satin which clocks over six and half hours. Another key facet of his works is his seamless combination of all art-forms: theater, music, painting and film; the various means of overlapping artistic representation.
His third feature, “O Passado e o Presente (The Past and the Present), wouldn’t be released until 1971, commencing his “tetralogy of frustrated love. It wasn’t until the early 80s that Oliveira would receive international recognition, steadily becoming a festivals fixture.
By the 90s, Oliveira began to explore his main themes – doomed love, aging, culture loss, the never-ending search for national identity and the position, and manifestations, of spirituality in modern world – outside Portugal, employing the assistance of international stars such as John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve, Irene Papas, Michel Piccoli and the great Marcello Mastroianni.
Despite his growing fame, the majority of Oliveira’s work remains unseen by critics and most film enthusiasts alike. Some of his new outputs slightly improved the situation, including, most prominently, “Belle toujours, his 2006 sequel to Luis Buñuel’s controversial classic “Belle de jour.
His latest film, “Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, doesn’t mark a departure from previous films, or deviate from his signature themes and staple visuals. Yet for all its classism, “Girl – which will be screened Thursday night at the Italian Culture Center – is Oliveira’s most youthful, charming and unpredictable film in many years; a paean to lost love and vanishing idealism, a quiet rumination on the schism between expectations and reality. Oh, and it’s under 64 minutes.
Based on a story by Portuguese realist Eco di Queiroz, the tale centers on Macario (Oliveira’s grandson Riccardo Trepa), a young naïve accountant working for his uncle’s high-end fabric store. One day, he sees a young, strikingly beautiful blonde girl (Catarina Wallenstein) from across the street, fanning herself with an old Chinese fan. He instantly falls in love and decides to marry her, much to the chagrin of his uncle who, for an unidentified reason, forces him to choose between his love and his inheritance.
Macario chooses the girl and a result, his uncle kicks him out of his house. Jobless and desperate, he accepts an offer to work in the distant island of Cape Verde to amass the necessary fortune needed to marry Luisa (the girl). What follows is a series of more economic, and moral, hurdles Macario confronts before Oliveira brings the story to an unanticipated, jolting conclusion.
Oliveira’s signature techniques are evidently displayed in every scene of the film. The story is framed via a train conversation between Macario and a fellow passenger (Oliveira regular Leonor Silveira). Voice-overs carrying direct texts from Queiroz’s story are employed, if not as heavily as in previous literary adaptations. Oliveira never moves his camera, retaining the aforementioned iconistic quality through the film’s most transfixing images. Performances slightly veer towards theatricality, with one character (Silveira) continuously seen staring directly towards the camera.
Although set in what appears to be a present-day Lisbon, “Girl radiates a certain aura of a bygone era. In one scene, Macario meets Luisa in a cultural saloon where the poems of Fernando Pessoa are recited and the dreamy melodies of French composer Claude Debussy are played on harp. Macario himself is constantly motivated by a sense of duty and moral obligation; a drive that doesn’t fit the makeup of present world.
The essence of the story lies in Oliveira’s different modes of representation. The story is told from Macario’s subjective perspective. Luisa remains a mysterious creature, perhaps the embodiment of his ideal love. Oliveira doesn’t reveal much about her, wrapping her tightly under a swathe of perfection. In his eyes, she continues to be faithful throughout, loving Macario, standing by his side and waiting for him.
The obstacles Oliveira throws on Macario’s way represent a progressive sequence of wake-up calls to reality that reaches a strident peak in the final part. The type of romantic love found in poetry, music and the remnants of the past have no place in a world where money is god and greed is a norm. The idealistic image Macario projects on Luisa has no basis in reality; the true love Macario believes to have found couldn’t be anything more than a fantasy.
There is a raucous disparity between memories and truth; between expectations and reality. Love, real love, is principally a whim; a strong desire for something that it isn’t. Reality eventually comes calling, shattering these dreams and replacing them with deep wells of ironies. The vast sense of optimism introduced at the beginning of the story dissipates as Oliveira’s wryness finally surfaces.
“Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is showing as part of the European Film Club on April 15, 9 pm, at the Italian Cultural Institute. Address: 3 Sheikh El Marsafi St., Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2735 8791, (02) 2735 5423.