Game for a century

Film still for Game for a century

For eight decades Manoel de Oliveira has played with audiences' expectations of cinema. Now, at the age of 100, this contradictory figure is not merely Portugal's most important director, he's an international treasure. By Jonathan Romney

As Michel Piccoli's character walks off at the end of Manoel de Oliveira's Belle toujours (2006), waiters clearing the salonwhere he just hosted a dinner à deux share observations on their client: "Quel drôle de type" - "Oui, quel homme étrange." A funny guy, a strange man: you might say the same of Manoel de Oliveira. The veteran Portuguese film-maker is drôle indeed, a farceur and proud of it, yet deadly serious at the same time. Oliveira is an anomaly too, not just among film-makers, but among human beings: he celebrates his hundredth birthday on 12 December this year, having made roughly a film a year since the early 1980s, and apparently showing no inclination to stop.

A few years ago I interviewed Oliveira onstage in London after a screening of his 2001 film I'm Going Home (Je rentre à la maison), starring Michel Piccoli. The director was in mischievous mood. I started to ask about his first film, from 1931, but Oliveira was having none of it. "When I made my first film," he said, holding his hand a foot above the ground, "I was only this big. Then I made a second film, and I was this big," he gestured a little higher. "Now I have made a film with Michel Piccoli, and I am this big" - the 93-year-old Oliveira climbed on to his chair and stood arms outstretched, receiving an ovation of several minutes.

Outrageous as this showmanship is, it's also curiously modest - as though it had really taken eight decades of film-making and Piccoli's blessing for Oliveira to achieve greatness. Oliveira is certainly a great director, although in a singular way. Critics have compared him to the likes of Buñuel and Dreyer, yet his films remain outside the canon. Wilfully uncommercial and hard to see outside festivals, these eccentric works can be elusive even at their least obscure, as in the case of the approachable yet slippery Belle toujours. Because most admirers have seen relatively few of Oliveira's films, there is little consensus about which are his best. And because of his longevity, his pre-eminence as Portugal's national auteur, and his mythical aura far beyond that of your average 'grand old man', there is often resistance to acknowledging Oliveira's status. Another nonconformist Portuguese director, the late João César Monteiro, once wrote an article questioning the merit of the man he called "the fossil of Oporto", before grudgingly recognising Oliveira as "the greatest young Portuguese director". That was in 1974, when Oliveira was only 66.

It's hard to suspend considerations of mystique when trying to appraise Oliveira's work. He has provoked gasps by dancing in his film Inquietude (1998) or, on his regular visits to Cannes, by bounding up the Palais steps. A former racing driver and athlete, Oliveira was always in good shape: 1930s photos of him heaving a vaulting pole or carrying a bathing beauty on his shoulders reveal a Grecian-style muscleman and shameless glamour hound.

Only four Oliveira films have been released in Britain, and only since the early 1990s. Some films are available on DVD, with French or Spanish subtitles. As for the quartet that some consider Oliveira's masterpieces, the 'Tetralogy of Frustrated Love' that includes the four-hour-plus Doomed Love (Amor de Perdição, 1978), you'll be lucky ever to see the first three.

For an international audience, Oliveira's difficulty derives in no small part from his preoccupation with Portuguese history and culture. Some of his films are cosmopolitan: their literary references and models include Flaubert, Ionesco, Beckett and Dostoevsky; A Talking Picture (Um Filme Falado , 2003), which muses on the fate of western culture after 9/11, has dialogue in French, English, Italian, Greek and Portuguese. But Oliveira returns obsessively to home-grown material: the life and work of 19th-century writer Camilo Castelo Branco, subject of 1992's docudrama The Day of Despair (O Dia do Desespero); 20th-century plays by Jose Regio and Prista Monteiro; the novels of Oliveira's frequent co-writer Agustina Bessa-Luis. The gruelling and austere Word and Utopia (Palavra e Utopia, 2000) is a rather Straubian setting of the writings of the 17th-century Jesuit preacher Father Antonio Vieira, surely qualifying it as one of the most wilfully uncommercial films ever.

Oliveira's sceptical nationalism sets him apart in world cinema. A key Oliveira theme is the specificity of Portuguese culture, which goes hand in hand with the nation's geographic marginality on Europe's western rim. There is the country's relative linguistic isolation, together with the political stasis it endured from 1932 to 1974 under the Estado Novo regime of dictator Antonio Salazar. And, looking further back, there is nostalgia for a lost dream of empire that collapsed in the 16th century. Oliveira's Portugal is an idea predicated on singularity, isolation, loss, memory and eclipsed glory. All these are factors, perhaps, of the national cult of saudade (melancholy, or the blues), although Oliveira treats this with wry scepticism.

Film, fascism and farming

Born in 1908 into a wealthy Oporto family, Oliveira made his directing debut with the silent 18-minute documentary Labour on the River Douro, (Douro, Faina Fluvial), made in 1931 under the twin influences of Walter Ruttmann's Berlin Symphony of a City and Jean Vigo's A propos de Nice. Oliveira's film is less exclusively an urban study than those, more a portrait of the changes modernity brought to a culture that was still largely agricultural. It's startling to see the film's juxtaposition of the massive bridge that spans the river in Oporto and the rural imagery photographed in the city itself, with ox-drawn carts on the urban riverbanks.

Oliveira made a handful of short documentaries through the 1930s, only turning to fiction in 1942 with Aniki Bobó. Shot on location in Oporto, Aniki Bobó has often been seen as a forerunner of Italian neorealism, yet its subject and mood are anti-realist. With a cast consisting almost entirely of children, the action seems to take place in a republic of childhood, in which a version of courtly love is played out on the streets by day, and on its rooftops at night. There's an archaic coyness about Aniki Bobó, but its mix of innocence and Vigo-esque mischief is still winning.

The difficulty of making films under a regime with which he had found disfavour (Oliveira was imprisoned for ten days in 1963 by Salazar's secret police) made it impossible for him to continue as a professional film-maker. Turning to agriculture, he did not shoot another full-length feature for 21 years, although he made two important documentaries in the 1950s: The Painter and the City (O Pintor e a Cidade, 1956) and Bread (O Pao, 1959).

Of a handful of 1960s titles, the key piece is the 94-minute Rite of Spring (Acto da Primavera, 1963). It's ostensibly a film of a Passion play mounted by inhabitants of a northern Portuguese village. I haven't seen it, but in its stark imagery of faces turned to the cross the imposing stills evoke something between Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew and Eisenstein. Some critics see it as Oliveira's most political film, with the crucifixion as the act of oppression par excellence. Rite of Spring is also regarded as the first Oliveira film to be preoccupied with the question of the relations between life, theatre and cinema: the film is at once an enactment of the Passion and a representation of that enactment. The prologue shows Oliveira's crew setting up their cameras, a framing tactic that would become a trademark.

Oliveira returned to fiction in 1971, embarking on his 'Tetralogy of Frustrated Love'. Beginning with Past and Present (O Passado e a Presente, 1971), the series continues with Benilde or the Virgin Mother (Benilde, ou a Virgim Mãe, 1975) and the 270-minute Doomed Love, said to be the film in which Oliveira fully embraces the theatrical style with which we now associate him: uninflected acting, frontal shooting, a very conscious simplicity in which the drama itself, rather than any obtrusive cinematic stylistics, becomes of paramount importance.

Of the Tetralogy, I've seen only the closing Francisca (1981), an artificial, oddly mechanical melodrama. In tone it's like an opera without a score. The film is set in the 1840s when, an intertitle tells us, Portugal was steeped in "a climate of instability and despair". A pair of lovers elope, but their union is never consummated and the bride is left languishing in the darkness of her husband's house. Darkness in Francisca fills the screen to supremely oppressive effect - a very dense 19th-century darkness, redolent of heavy wood-panelled chambers and the atmospherics of 1940s Hollywood melodrama. While far from being a comedy, the film is spiked with cantankerous humour: its Byronically glum male leads, with stovepipe hats and matching black moustaches, might have stepped out of an Edward Gorey cartoon, and one of them has a habit of riding his horse indoors. Throughout, Oliveira plays fast and loose with the fictional illusion; in his one recurrent stroke of cinematic trickery, he shows us entire sequences twice over, from different angles.

Oliveira is even more overtly theatrical in a cycle of films that cultivate seemingly uncinematic artifice in a manner akin to latter-day Alain Resnais, or Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois (1978). His 410-minute adaptation of Paul Claudel's drama The Satin Slipper (Le Soulier de satin, 1985) is one of the great films-monstres, a dauntingly monumental undertaking. Set in the Spanish Golden Age, this story of colonial conflict, spiritual ordeal and romantic separation uses lavishly artificial decor, with locations including the decks of ships, a luridly painted desert and the sea. The presentation could hardly be more Brechtian: the six-and-a-half-minute opening shot begins with a prologue spoken in a theatre foyer, after which the audience take their seats; the camera retreats down the gangway, tilting up to reveal the costumed cast standing ready; it pans towards the stage, but the play proper begins on a screen, on to which the first scene is projected. The film ends with the camera pulling back to reveal a film studio.

The jolliest of Oliveira's films from this period is The Cannibals (Os Canibais, 1988), a blackly comic operetta that turns on the revelation that an enigmatic bridegroom, the Viscount (Luís Miguel Cintra), is part man, part machine: cue the flamboyantly macabre image of a limbless Viscount singing in a blazing fireplace. The next morning, the bride's father and brothers inadvertently eat the Viscount's roasted body. The father turns into a pig, the sons become dogs, and a merry danse macabre ensues. Narrated in recitative by an arch master of ceremonies, The Cannibals is a grisly divertissement, enjoyable and fabulously eccentric.

The fourth wall

Oliveira has often used theatre to get a purchase on history, but never so compellingly as in the pageant-like No, or the Vain Glory of Command (Nao, o a Vã Gloria de Mandar, 1990), a assessment of Portugal's place in world history. The framing narrative is set in a latter-day African colony of Portugal (presumably Angola or Mozambique) where a detachment of soldiers discuss the nature of war while awaiting their next engagement. The commanding officer (Cintra) narrates the great defeats, failures and near-misses of Portuguese history, which are re-enacted with the same actors that play the modern soldiers (among them another long-standing regular, the long-faced Diogo Dória). The film takes us from the death of the chieftain Viriathus, betrayed before he could defeat the invading Romans, to the decisive battle of Alcacer-Quibir in 1578, in which the ineffectual King Sebastian I was defeated by Moroccan forces. Balancing these events are the discoveries that, the film argues, brought Portugal its cultural glory and constitute its legacy to the world: the journeys of such explorers as Vasco da Gama, and their celebration in Camoëns' national epic the Lusiads.

No Oliveira film occupies so many different registers: contemporary war-film realism; grand-scale reconstructions of historic battles, reminiscent of Laurence Olivier's Agincourt in Henry V; and the pantomime-like evocation of Camoëns' Island of Love, mythology decked out in lavish baroque tableaux vivants, with the nymph Thetis descending from the skies in a conch shell drawn by swans. This celebratory, even kitsch, visual excess evokes the idyll of cultural generosity, the grand 'yes' as opposed to the 'no' of war. The film ends in a key of both irony and hope: as Cintra's character lies wounded in a field hospital, a voiceover reveals that he died on 25 April 1974, the day of the Revolution that ended the Salazar era.

Oliveira was never again quite so flamboyant, scaling down into the cycle of more sober, static and often prolix films that largely contribute to his (not entirely unjustified) reputation as stuffy and arcane. These 'salon' films are airless - the composed, matter-of-fact photography tells us that we are watching people talk in rooms in modern Portuguese settings, nothing more or less.

The approach pays off in The Uncertainty Principle (O Principio da incerteza, 2002), where the flatness counterpoints the mischief of a narrative that is effectively a high-society soap, the measured tone giving way to an unexpected climax as a gang of devil-masked intruders executes a firebomb attack on a nightclub. Similarly poised is Abraham Valley (Val Abraão, 1993), in which the story of a latter-day Madame Bovary is spun out by sober voiceover narration, giving us the hypnotic impression of reading a stately, rambling novel.

In these films, it's often the actors' presence that sustains our interest: as in, for instance, The Convent (O Convento, 1995), a perplexing work in which Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich play a couple visiting a monastery that is seemingly haunted by demonic forces. And if Abraham Valley captivates for much of its running time, it's largely because of Leonor Silveira, Oliveira's resident muse from the late 1980s onwards. Given Silveira's detached presence in a series of enigmatic roles, it's fair to say that the director uses her as an ever-evolving incarnation of his idea of female mystery. First appearing as an ingenue in The Cannibals, she has more recently been a silky demi-mondaine in The Uncertainty Principle and a pious society matron in 2005's laborious Magic Mirror (Espelho Mágico). But Silveira's most remarkable roles are in The Letter (La Lettre, 1999), as a nun of the cinematic old school, her face endlessly compassionate in its framing wimple, and in Abraham Valley, where her opacity, coupled with her menthol-cool gaze, makes her the elusive object and subject of desire in a film that never allows itself to be pinned down as either psychological portrait or tragic narrative.

Two recent autobiographical works are in an entirely different mode. Journey to the Beginning of the World (Viagem ao principio do mundo,1997) is a fictionalised travelogue in which Oliveira accompanies friends on a car journey through Portugal, visiting places of importance in his life. Or rather, he doesn't quite: Manoel, a Portuguese film-maker, is played by Marcello Mastroianni, while Oliveira himself hovers in the background as Manoel's driver. The film's central metaphor for the farewell to things past is a landscape receding, seen through the back window of a speeding car.

Everything in this poetic elegy - which Oliveira made at the age of 90 - fits the classic mould of the farewell testament. In fact, the film was Mastroianni's last, but not Oliveira's; the director later made Oporto of My Childhood (Porto da Minha Infancia, 2001), which revisits the sites of Oliveira's past (not so much childhood, as adolescence and early manhood). The film is built around memories: the house where Oliveira was born (seen as an eerie ruin), distant sense-impressions (the sound of horses at night), and dramatic reconstructions in which the young Manoel is played by the director's grandsons Jorge and Ricardo Trepa (the latter a regular in the repertory company and an uncanny ringer for his grandfather when young). These vivid re-enactments include a visit to a play, the director himself cheerfully donning wig and moustache to appear as a stage burglar. The film-maker also remembers his years frequenting nightclubs, or rather brothels, as a young gallant politely rebuffed by an elegant courtesan (Silveira).

Oliveira looks to his youth with melancholic fondness, painting himself as a dabbler, rake and naif, and the past as an Edenic, pre-Salazar realm of brilliant, transient pleasures. In Oporto, he refers explicitly to the spirit of saudade, but in Journey, he had defined saudade as what happens when you "lose your sense of irony". That refusal to yield to the non-ironic bluesis evident in his other recent films about ageing. Valence, the actor played by Piccoli in I'm Going Home, maintains his dignity to the end, not just by surviving the tragic loss of his family, but by being prepared to enact his own mortality in a key of knowing buffoonery: first in a performance of Ionesco's Exit the King, later by appearing in a clearly futile film of Joyce's Ulysses. It is not a defeat but a victory that Valence knows when to say enough is enough, and walks off set.

This desire not to lament the past but to celebrate it also underlies Belle toujours. A belated coda to Belle de jour, it features Piccoli as Husson, the man in Luis Buñuel's 1967 film who knows that his friend's wife Séverine (then played by Catherine Deneuve) is moonlighting in a brothel. Catching sight of Séverine years later, the elderly Husson tracks her down and invites her to a private dinner, which she attends reluctantly. As if consciously quoting Buñuel's film, Husson buys (in a Paris high street boutique) the same box containing a mysterious buzzing thing with which an Asian client fascinated Séverine decades ago: now, however, she is no longer interested. She declares she is no longer the woman she once was - a protest that derives its Buñuelian irony from the fact that Séverine is no longer Deneuve, but the less stately, altogether nervier figure of Bulle Ogier. Much as Husson tries to toy with the phantom of past desire, he is left standing alone amid the pure formalities of the seduction game: a private salon, candlelight, a trompe l'oeil painting of Paris outside a red-curtained window.

Getting the second degré

Often, it's the intermittence of joking and high seriousness that makes it hard to tell when, and whether, Oliveira is simply playing with us - or sometimes quite what he's saying. A Talking Picture, set on a cruise ship sailing east, ends with a terrorist bomb, and a history professor (Silveira) and her young daughter die because of a doll of a veiled Muslim woman. Is the film an outright Islamophobic response to 9/11, or a Buñuelesque provocation, nodding to the bombs of That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir, 1977)?With Oliveira, knowing for sure may be beside the point. A similarly ambiguous case is The Letter, a modern adaptation of Madame de Lafayette's 17th-century novel La Princesse de Clèves, a film that dares us to take it seriously. Clearly, Oliveira is to some degree having a chuckle at the viewer's expense: partly in his use of intertitles that expose the absurdity of the archaic narrative coincidences, partly in the bizarre casting. As the object of the heroine's doomed passion, Oliveira chooses Portuguese rock star Pedro Abrunhosa, who plays himself: a short, dour man in dark glasses, brothel creepers and a ludicrous fedora.

The Letter appears to mock the singer and his persona - and possibly his bland AOR balladry - but then Oliveira did shoot a video for an Abrunhosa song, so who knows? More of a test case is whether or not Oliveira persuades us to accept a particularly delicate moment at the end of the film. After its heroine (Chiara Mastroianni) has mysteriously left Paris, the nun (Leonor Silveira) who is her friend and confessor reads the letter in which Madame de Clèves reveals she has gone to Africa. As we hear of the horrific deprivation Madame de Clèves has witnessed there, the nun looks up from her reading and pronounces a simple, direct "Mon Dieu!" It's Silveira's frank, calm, open face that, against all odds, makes us take the exclamation and the scene seriously. Thinking of the African aid workers, the nun asks, "Where do they find the strength?" - then gets her answer, looking upwards as bells ring for the evening prayer. The interplay of registers makes it possible to take at face value - and even find moving - a scene that we otherwise might dismiss as sentimental piety.

Such moments may make us question Oliveira's sincerity, but sincerity itself is surely not at issue (any more than it should be with any film-maker), for what Oliveira is absolutely committed to is the game-like nature of film, and playing with form and expectation. However we read them, Oliveira's comic touches and abrupt jolts cannot be separated from his overall seriousness, which variously manifests itself as austerity, doominess, prolixity or, in all honesty, downright ponderousness. All these clashing registers are part of the seriousness of gaming, and Oliveira is a playful film-maker to the highest degree. The gaming keeps us guessing and prevents Oliveira's films from becoming the authoritative testaments of a revered grandee.

If there's a term for this distance in Oliveira's work it's the French second degré - literally 'second degree' - usually meaning 'ironic and self-reflexive' and implying a framing detachment in which what we see is not the thing itself, but an artificial representation. Abraham Valley is not strictly a modern-day Madame Bovary, but an adaptation of a novel that is itself based on Flaubert, about a woman known to friends as 'a Bovarinha' (the 'little Bovary'). Another second degré hybrid is The Money Box (A Caixa, 1994), an adaptation of a play about working-class Lisbon, staged on one of the city's narrow staircase-streets. The film resembles a piece of proletarian realism à la Renoir's Les Bas-Fonds, until Oliveira interrupts it with a bizarre entr'acte in which ballerinas flit on to dance under the street lamps. It's the second degré - the art of playful indeterminacy - that has kept Manoel de Oliveira going long after other film-makers run out of ideas and physical energy. Here's wishing good health and further mischief to a peerless drôle de type.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012