Understanding the iconoclastic work of a lifelong cinematic pioneer
With a career spanning over seventy years, Portuguese film director Manoel de Oliveira may be the oldest active filmmaker in the world today. Known for his distinctive formal techniques and philosophical treatment of themes such as frustrated love, nationhood, evil, and divine grace, the director's work has run consistently against the mainstream. Focusing primarily on his feature films, Randal Johnson navigates Oliveira's massive oeuvre, locating his work within the broader context of Portuguese and European cinema. He also examines multiple aspects of Oliveira's conception of film language, ranging from early concerns with cinematic specificity to hybrid discourses suggesting a tenuous line between film and theater on the one hand, and between fiction and documentary on the other.
A volume in the series Contemporary Film Directors, edited by James Naremore
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Manoel de Oliveira
By Randal Johnson
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2007 John Randal Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneManoel de Oliveira: Talking Pictures
The Early Years: 1931-65
In September 2004, the Venice International Film Festival presented Lifetime Achievement Awards to American director Stanley Donen (b. 1924) and Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (b. 1908). Oliveira's filmmaking career, unsurprisingly, began earlier than that of the younger American director. He made his first film, "Douro, Faina Fluvial" (Labor on the Douro) in 1931 and his first feature, Aniki-Bóbó, in 1942, whereas Donen's first feature, On the Town, was released in 1949. What may be more surprising for those unfamiliar with the Portuguese director's work is the fact that his career as an active filmmaker has far outlasted that of his American counterpart. Whereas Donen released his twenty-eighth and last theatrical feature, Blame It on Rio, in 1984, since that same year-when he turned seventy-six-Oliveira has made twenty-one features, including O Quinto Império: Ontem como Hoje (The Fifth Empire: Yesterday as today; 2004), which had its initial screening in the festival that honored the two directors. Oliveira has made a feature film each year since 1990, with the exceptionof 2001, when he made two. In 2005 he made Espelho Mágico (Magic mirror), and in 2006 he completed Belle Toujours, both of which had their initial screenings in Venice. It has perhaps become a cliché to say that Oliveira is the world's oldest active filmmaker. But in fact he is.
Oliveira's cinematic longevity, encompassing more than seventy years of activity from the late silent period to the present, is obviously remarkable in its own right. But what is perhaps more impressive is the creative vitality of his films. Unrestrained by the strictures of studio production and commercial imperatives, he has been able to pursue his own vision in a style of his choosing, resulting in films that are original, often provocative, and almost always unorthodox, particularly when measured by Hollywood's standards. In terms of cinematic creativity, he is much younger than many filmmakers half his age.
Highly respected in Europe-particularly in France and Italy-Oliveira's recognition in the United States has been more hesitant. Whereas in Europe he is often acclaimed as a master on the level of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Roberto Rossellini, in the United States he is sometimes seen as difficult or excessively cerebral. The simultaneous enthusiasm and hesitation may reflect different reactions to the same aspects of Oliveira's work, which is characterized by an iconoclastic reflective and self-reflexive cinematic discourse, with films that are sometimes considerably longer than the norm-almost seven hours, in the case of Le Soulier de satin (The satin slipper; 1985)-and a frequently static camera. For those weaned on Hollywood, his films may seem slow, theatrical, or excessively spoken. His themes-which range from frustrated love to questions of nationhood and empire, from configurations of evil to divine grace, from remembrance and aging to relations between art and life-also align his work more with certain philosophical tendencies of European cinema than with standard American fare.
From almost the beginning of his career Oliveira has expressed opposition to conventional forms of cinematic expression driven by commercial imperatives. In 1933 he published a short text titled "O Cinema e o Capital" (Cinema and capital) in which he argues that the commercial orientation of American cinema smothers and subjugates the artist. Rather than bend to commercial demands, he has followed his own path. The same goes for other external demands, such as those of a political nature. When, for example, he released Benilde ou a Virgem-Mãe (Benilde or the Virgin-Mother) in the year following the 1974 Revolution in Portugal, the film was accused of being alienated from the country's contemporary sociopolitical reality. Oliveira responded that the film is set in the 1930s, not the 1970s.
The first forty-three years of Oliveira's career-his least productive period-took place under the moralistic and repressive dictatorship known as the Estado Novo, or New State. Censorship was harsh and dissent not tolerated. The notorious political police, the PIDE, were there to silence malcontents. Film-production financing came to be increasingly dependent on the state. Oliveira did not support the Estado Novo, and although he wrote numerous screenplays and treatments during the dictatorship, because of lack of funding he was able to direct only two feature-length films between 1931 and 1963. It was only in the 1970s that he began to direct on a more regular basis.
Oliveira's work has been described as revealing an inclination toward l'écriture-palimpseste, or palimpsestic writing, in that his films are often inscribed or constructed on other texts, which are mostly narrative and theatrical (Rollet). Oliveira is most closely associated with three Portuguese writers-Camilo Castelo Branco (1862-90), José Régio (1899-1969), and Agustina Bessa-Luís (b. 1922)-but his filmography also includes versions of writings by Paul Claudel, Madame de Lafayette, and the Jesuit priest António Vieira, among others. All of his films, however, contain significant literary references and allusions. A Divina Comédia (The divine comedy; 1991), for example, includes passages or characters from the Bible, José Régio, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche, although it is not an adaptation, and much less an adaptation of Dante. O Convento (The convent; 1995) includes multiple citations from Goethe's Faust. Je rentre à la maison (I'm going home; 2001) encompasses a staging of a scene from Ionesco's Exit the King, another from Shakespeare's The Tempest, and a fictitious filming of Joyce's Ulysses. In other films references may occupy less space or be more understated, but they permeate his entire body of work.
Through his use of previously existing texts, Oliveira explores the nature of cinematic language, resulting in a concept of film that often goes against commonly held views and practices, such as the ideas that spoken language is a lesser element of the cinema, that the "theatrical," when on screen, is somehow inferior, or that camera movement is essential to cinematic discourse. He has said, somewhat provocatively, that he attempts to make his films as uncinematic as possible and to remove the spectacular and the emotional from his films in order to focus on the ideas and problems involved. Several of his films involve themes that could lend themselves to melodrama, for example, and yet Oliveira studiously avoids melodrama. He has referred to his work as a "cerebral" cinema.
Oliveira also expresses a profoundly ethical posture in his discussion, in multiple films, of art and life, life and death, moral or religious ideals and social reality, good and evil, love and desire, and the possibility of discovering the truth in human beings' enigmatic existence. His films raise many questions, but they rarely provide answers, and they are never prescriptive or didactic. Rather, they present situations involving human conduct on individual, national, and global levels to provoke reflection on the part of the spectator. His cinema is deeply moral, but never moralistic.
To begin to approach Oliveira's view of the cinema, one might consider his appearance in Wim Wenders's Lisbon Story (1994), a tribute both to Portugal's capital city and to the cinema. Midway in the film Oliveira appears in a sound studio. Facing the camera and speaking into a microphone, he offers brief comments about God, the universe, humanity, memory, and the cinema: "God exists. He created the universe.... We want to imitate God, and that's why there are artists. Artists want to re-create the world as if they were small gods. They constantly think and rethink about history, about life, about things that are happening in the world, or that we think happened because we believe that they did. After all, we believe in memory, because everything has happened ... but who can guarantee that what we imagine to have happened actually happened? Whom should we ask?" At this point, the film cuts from the studio to a city street and from color to sepia, reminiscent of the cinema's silent period, while Oliveira's words continue in voiceover: "The world, according to this supposition, is an illusion. The only true thing is memory, but memory is an invention.... In the cinema, the camera can fix a moment, but that moment has already passed, and the image is a phantasm of that moment; we are no longer certain that the moment existed outside of the film. Or is the film a guarantee of the existence of the moment? I don't know. The more I think about it, the less I know. We live in permanent doubt. Nevertheless, our feet are on the ground, we eat, and we enjoy life."
Oliveira's concerns here involve the ontological status of the image and epistemological questions about the image as a form of knowledge. He does not confuse film and reality, or the cinematic reality-that which we see on screen-with the pro-filmic reality, or that which is placed before the camera. He posits instead the idea of the image as an illusion or a phantasm in its relationship to an objective reality, but also in relation to truth, which is sometimes notoriously difficult to capture. Oliveira's concerns also obviously involve broader moral, existential, or metaphysical questions about human beings in an ultimately enigmatic world, and such questions, generally without answers, arise in multiple ways throughout his work.
Manoel Cândido Pinto de Oliveira was born on 11 December 1908, in the city of Porto, the son of an industrialist, Francisco José Oliveira, and Cândida Ferreira Pinto de Oliveira. His father owned a dry-goods factory in Porto. He also produced the first electric lightbulbs in Portugal, and shortly before his death in 1932 he built an electric energy plant. His son Manoel filmed the plant's inauguration in the short documentary "Hulha Branca, Empresa Hidro-Eléctrica do Rio Ave" (White Coal, hydroelectric company on the Ave River; 1932).
Oliveira's education took place in the Colégio Universal in Porto before he attended a Jesuit boarding school in La Guardia, Galicia. He revealed an early interest in art, and particularly the cinema. In Porto he was able to see German expressionist films produced by Universum Film AG (UFA), Soviet films such as Pudovkin's Mother (1926) and Eisenstein's The General Line (1929), American films by Chaplin and Griffith, and numerous French and Italian films. He had a special predilection for Max Linder comedies (Andrade, O Porto 24-25).
Before making his own films, Oliveira began to make a name for himself because of his athletic prowess. He was a champion pole-vaulter, a competitive diver, and a race-car driver. He even participated in a trapeze act for the Porto Sports Club. His first experience with film came in 1928 when he worked, along with his brother, as an extra in Italian-born Rino Lupo's Fátima Milagrosa (Miraculous Fátima). Oliveira also made an appearance in the first sound film made entirely in Portugal, Cottinelli Telmo's A Canção de Lisboa (Lisbon song; 1933). He soon moved to the other side of the camera, with only sporadic appearances as an actor after that point.
"Douro, Faina Fluvial"
Oliveira made his first film, the twenty-one-minute "Douro, Faina Fluvial," at the moment of transition between silent and sound cinema. The film deals with diverse work-related activities that take place alongside and in the Douro River in Oliveira's native Porto. "Douro" is not, however, a traditional documentary about the river and the city. Rather, it is much closer to the city symphony films of Walter Ruttmann, Dziga Vertov, Alberto Cavalcânti, and the early Joris Ivens. Antoine de Baecque characterizes the film as a "visual symphony," and José de Matos-Cruz has referred to it as a "geographical mosaic" in which the director brings together a multiplicity of images-often taken from strikingly unusual angles or reflected in the water-of people, boats, trains, barges, bridges, houses, alleyways, ships, light and shadows, crashing waves, objects blowing in the wind, and, above all, the river (Baecque and Parsi 12; Matos-Cruz 73).
According to the director, the idea for the film grew out of an image he saw in a film by Jacques Feyder: the taut chain of an anchored boat resisting the strong currents of a river. The image's power and beauty reminded him of the banks of the Douro, with its intense activity of boats arriving and departing, loading and unloading merchandise. Oliveira apparently had little interest in documentary until he saw Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), which he has referred to as "the most useful lesson in film technique" that he had ever seen ("Manoel" 68). At the same time, he found Ruttmann's film rather cold and mechanical, lacking in a humanity that later films by the German director possessed. Although the modernist age expressed a fascination with machines, it was the humanity that existed along the Douro that interested Oliveira ("Manoel" 67; Baecque and Parsi 95; Andrade O Porto 28).
Oliveira has referred to "Douro" as an experiment with cinematic specificity, the multiplicity of perspectives, and with the montage theories that were circulating at the time (Baecque and Parsi 96). Akin to German expressionism, the film is an exercise in light, shadows, rhythm, and angle, depicting multiple forms of labor associated in some way with the river as well as the urban transformations provoked by the inexorable process of modernization. The key dramatic sequence, in which an oxcart knocks a man down, is provoked when the driver of a car, distracted by an airplane flying overhead, backs into the oxcart, causing the animal to panic. This sequence, one of several fictional moments in the documentary, offers an early indication of the kind of cinematic hybridity that would come to characterize much of Oliveira's work. The film also includes a hint of the self-reflexivity that would become a constant in his films. It opens and closes with an image of the lamp of a lighthouse casting its light as if it were a film projector.
Manoel de Oliveira made "Douro" on a shoestring budget with photographer António Mendes, who could only work on the film during his free time from his day job at a bank. The film was shot on an inexpensive Kinamo camera that Oliveira's father purchased for him, and much of the footage was edited directly on the negative on a pool table in Oliveira's house. The director evokes these circumstances in Porto da Minha Infância (Porto of my childhood; 2001). On one of his trips to Lisbon to compete in an athletic event, Oliveira met producer António Lopes Ribeiro, who had seen parts of his film when it was in Lisbon to be developed. Lopes Ribeiro invited him to screen it at the International Congress of Film Critics that was soon to convene in the city. Oliveira rushed to finish the film, and it was screened on 19 September 1931. The Portuguese audience in attendance booed the film, but foreign critics and artists present, such as Luigi Pirandello and Émile Vuillermoz, admired its avant-garde nature. Vuillermoz wrote a very positive review in Le Temps (3 October 1931).
The film was also well received by the writers and critics associated with the modernist review Presença, which was one of the first Portuguese reviews to see film as art rather than mere entertainment, and particularly José Régio, who would become a close friend and collaborator. Régio noted that Oliveira had achieved something absolutely new in Portugal: the production of a documentary that offers "the powerful vision of a poet" and that "places the spectator in the very center of the frame," drawn in by its vertiginous rhythm. It is a film directed toward "that which is most intimate in our humanity and in our sense of poetry" (Régio 15). "Douro, Faina Fluvial" has long since been recognized as a masterpiece of Portuguese cinema.
After the screening of the barely finished film in Lisbon, Oliveira reedited it and added a light musical soundtrack by Luís de Freitas Branco, who came recommended by Lopes Ribeiro. This version was released commercially in 1934 as a complement to Lopes Ribeiro's Gado Bravo. In 1994, Oliveira made additional modifications to the film, now with a soundtrack featuring Emmanuel Nunes's "Litanies du Feu et de la Mer No. 2," which is more attuned to the avant-garde impulse of the film than is the music by Freitas Branco.
Excerpted from Manoel de Oliveira by Randal Johnson Copyright © 2007 by John Randal Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface and Acknowledgments....................xi
MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: TALKING PICTURES....................1
The Early Years: 1931-65....................1
The Tetralogy of Frustrated Love....................22
To the Limit....................43
Bonfire of Vanities....................62
"A MENTAL CONCEPTION OF CINEMA": AN INTERVIEW BY JEAN A. GILI....................141
AN INTERVIEW WITH MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA BY RUY GARDNIER....................155