Unfortunately missing from the Film Center’s current Manoel de Oliveira retrospective (apparently because it’s available on DVD, if that’s any excuse) is The Convent (1995), which Jonathan Rosenbaum’s recently described as “boring” and most other reviewers haven’t been too crazy about either.
Frankly I don’t get it. If I had to pick one Oliveira film as an accessible primer that at the same time embodies his richly connotative aesthetic in something like full dosage, The Convent would be it, the whole symbolist schmear in one elegantly distilled package. Because there’s not a frame in this comparatively short feature (for Oliveira anyway) that doesn’t direct you elsewhere, to allusions and cultural entities beyond the phenomenological surfaces of things, a Bachelardian parsing that subverts every impulse to narrative explication. If Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s the ultimate film literalist (everything exactly as you see it—but what exactly is that everything?), then Oliveira’s his nonliteral opposite: just a host of flickering impressions on the walls of Plato’s cave. So we have Catherine Deneuve emerging from the ocean like a Botticellian vision, or fishermen’s skiffs bobbing on an opalescent sea (marinescapes by Courbet?), or arcane sculptural riffs in a monastery courtyard that, to me anyway, suggest Brancusi’s studio in Paris, with its endlessly receding columns and enigmatic glyphs of stone. Not to mention Malkovich‘s sardonic channeling of Shakespeare (and, more playfully, Caliban), or the mystery mandala that prompts assorted characters to shield their eyes, a sinister luminosity (Milton’s satanic light bearer?) that none dare face directly. Evocations, gnomic references, and whatnot, the thematic afterimages of a thousand years of Western literature and art, all packed and resonating, like a swarm of elementary particles in a cultural cloud chamber. Plato’s cave never seemed more inviting–or more protective of its obscure insights. Which, of course, are never more remote than when just beyond our grasp.
Though finally it’s about balance, an almost perfect equipoise—or art aspiring to the condition of music, as intrepid philosophers used to theorize a century or more ago. Eureka, I think I’ve got it! … almost.