From Oliveiras A Talking Picture (2003)
  • From Oliveira’s A Talking Picture (2003)

It seems a little silly to mourn someone who lived to be 106 and remained an active artist up until his death, and fittingly, the obituaries for Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira that have appeared in the last week feel less mournful than celebratory. In fact, the obituaries feel a little redundant. For some time it had been a critical cliche to begin reviews of Oliveira films—of which there were dozens in the past few decades—by mentioning his age and summarizing his biography: Oliveira made his first movie during the silent era, then remained sporadic in his filmic output until the end of Portugal’s fascist period, becoming a prolific director only in his 70s. (As you can see, I’ve just perpetuated the cliche myself.) If there’s anything tragic about Oliveira’s passing, it’s that his extraordinary longevity now threatens to overshadow his artistic achievement, if it hadn’t already.

Not that Oliveira’s longevity is irrelevant to discussions of his work—many of his films are about the endurance of culture over long periods of time. He routinely adapted literary works from past centuries, and at least two of his greatest films, Inquietude (1998) and A Talking Picture (2003), consider the notion of immortality. What distinguishes his movies from other historical films is Oliveira’s humility in the face of the past. His adaptations preserve the outmoded conventions of their source material, and his contemporary-set films channel the narrative strategies of previous centuries as well. In his work from the late-70s on, Oliveira employed a rigorous, poker-faced style—staging the action in frontward compositions reminiscent of classical portraiture and eliciting opaque performances from his actors—that allowed him to present those conventions without comment. It was as though the past was speaking through him, not the other way around.

“[My films] aim to give us time to think, bit by bit,” Oliveira said in 2008. “The steady shot brings us to another state, to see, as in Da Vinci’s Annunciation . . . Somebody said that the present is eternal, but the present is immobile. It’s just like the images in celluloid, every single one is still and we only see movement with a succession of them.” Oliveira’s films of great length—Doomed Love (1978) and The Satin Slipper (1985)—build on this paradox, often slowing the action to the point of immobility in order to achieve a sense of the eternal. With Doomed Love, his near-verbatim adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco’s 19th-century novella, Oliveira shows the characters doing next to nothing so that long passages of narration could play out on the soundtrack. The film achieves what few others have—it makes one feel as though Oliveira’s looking past the physical world and into the characters’ souls.

Doomed Love
  • Doomed Love

Oliveira just as often invoked the past to comic ends. The strange humor of a film like The Letter (1999) derives from Oliveira making the present seem stranger than the past by imposing the narrative of a 17th-century novel onto a contemporary setting. French critic Michel Chion coined the term “cinematographic irony” to describe Oliveira’s style, meaning that his films draw no distinction between the significant and the insignificant, the mundane and the absurd. A Talking Picture is one of the most powerful examples of the director’s irony: set in the present and depicting a tour of ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean, the film suggests how the ancient world might regard us. The characters seem trivial, at times even silly (the film features what is surely John Malkovich’s funniest screen performance), yet they attain a poignant dignity by placing themselves before images of the eternal. Along with Doomed Love, it is one of the most overwhelming movies I’ve seen on a big screen.

Chicago has had the distinction of presenting more theatrical screenings of Oliveira’s movies than most other American cities. Starting in the early 1990s, the Chicago International Film Festival screened a new film of his almost every year, hosting the North American premieres of several. (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s extensive writings about Oliveira for the Reader played a big role in raising awareness of his work in this country, where too few of his films are available on DVD.) The director honored the city by appearing at the festival in 2005 to introduce a couple screenings of his Voltaire-esque satire Magic Mirror. I was in the audience for one of the shows and had the good fortune of getting to ask him a question during the Q&A. He’d told another audience member that the filmmakers he most admired were John Ford, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, and Chaplin—I wanted to know what he thought of the direction movies were taking now. He chuckled and whispered something to his interpreter, who then relayed, “Mr. Oliveira thinks that some new movies are good, that some are bad, but that the future is up to God.”