**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Manoel de Oliveira

With Luis-Miguel Cintra, Anne Configny, and Patricia Barzyk

Cinema has given us many kinds of masterworks. The Satin Slipper (Le soulier de satin) is clearly not a film for everyone. A viewer expecting the ready emotional charge provided by a well-crafted Hollywood production will surely be put off by this seven-hour epic melodrama in which the central couple, two 16th-century would-be lovers, are seen in the same shot together only after five hours of running time, and many years of dramatic time, have elapsed. The wordy, abstract, and philosophical dialogue is a further bar to escapist pleasure. Yet de Oliveira’s film is spectacularly beautiful, as grand in its thematic and cinematic ambitions as it is successful in realizing them.

Manoel de Oliveira is a veteran Portuguese filmmaker whose first films date back to the 30s and whose work is all too little known in the United States. The Satin Slipper, in French with English subtitles, is based on the 1924 play of the same title by Paul Claudel. Claudel’s play, which lasted nine hours when first performed, is divided into four parts, called “days,” and de Oliveira observes this division in his film. The Satin Slipper is thus presented as four feature-length films, called “The First Day,” “The Second Day,” and so on, but I prefer to view it as a single connected whole.

Claudel’s method, which becomes de Oliveira’s, is to construct his work like a widening spiral, in which the smallest of events, or the most nondescript of locales, lead to larger and more general spaces and occurrences. This structure is apparent in the way the fates of minor characters seem to echo the plight of the major couple, as well as in the film’s ever-expanding scale. Thus the first two scenes are set in different parts of the same Spanish garden, but soon we are in other parts of Spain, in Italy, in Africa, the Atlantic, North America, the Pacific.

Two Spanish nobles, Rodrigue (Luis-Miguel Cintra) and Prouheze (Anne Configny), meet on a beach and touch only for an instant. At this moment, which characteristically is never seen in the film, they fall in love. Much of Claudel’s and de Oliveira’s work depends upon crucial events being not shown but presented through the dialogue about them. In this way the viewer’s attention is directed not to the facts of an action, its physical outlines, but rather to the action’s significance. Thus much of the dialogue concerns this love that we never “see.” Duty as Spaniards, marriage to others, time, circumstance, and a letter that takes ten years to be delivered all conspire to keep Rodrigue and Prouheze apart. Until their meeting on the deck of Rodrigue’s ship, which is also the moment of their final rupture, they are united only as shadows. Even in this meeting, they never touch. Yet on the grand scale of the play and the film, this unconsummated passion is not present primarily to inspire our like passion, or pity. For Claudel, a deeply Catholic writer, this was a passion that could never be satisfied, and his themes concern the futility of human vanity, and the opposition between spiritual love and consummated physical love. Too, the play is set in the time of Spain’s greatest moment as a colonial power, and the energy that might have been dissipated in a happy union is instead channeled into Rodrigue’s and Prouheze’s separate efforts to maintain and expand the empire. Characters frequently speak of unifying the entire planet under Christ; Rodrigue declares, “I came to enlarge the world.” One need not agree with the imperialist ambitions of 16th-century Spain to appreciate the brilliance and intensity with which de Oliveira has expressed, cinematically, the megalomania of the period.

Plays are often staged with characters speaking to each other while both face the audience; theatergoers come to accept this unrealistic blocking, which allows one to see both actors’ faces. Filmmakers discovered very quickly that with editing, by changing camera angles, the viewer could be shown many different views of each character in a conversation. Hollywood uses such techniques to give the spectator the feeling of being drawn into the dialogue, into the emotional life of the characters. Such techniques also tend to emphasize the individual psychology of each person. In The Satin Slipper, de Oliveira has reverted to what might seem a largely theatrical mise-en-scene. Two characters may speak to each other in a long take that may last 15 minutes without any apparent edit. These characters may look at each other only occasionally, at key moments, or not at all. Each gazes off in a slightly different direction, their sight lines meeting only in some abstract space offscreen. The effect is not only to encourage us to concentrate on the dialogue rather than empathize with the characters, but also to direct our attention to the greater, unseen, abstract forces that always seem to be guiding the action. In this way the grander historical and theological issues are kept in focus. Hollywood, by contrast, tends to conceive of historical issues largely in terms of individual characters and the specifics of their desires and emotions. (For example, a recent made-for-TV movie on Columbus personalized the young Christopher as driven by an inner restlessness, some pseudoadolescent discontent, coupled with a conviction that he was destined for something great, though he wasn’t sure exactly what.)

Perhaps the most spectacular element of de Oliveira’s film is his use of theatrical backdrops, often painted flats, sometimes machine-driven moving sets. Two characters conduct a long discussion on the deck of a ship, while behind them rollers create the illusion of moving ocean waves between which painted “whales” leap constantly in the air. Anyone who has seen a school of whales — or, for that matter, an ocean wave — will see immediately that those in the set are far more regular in their recurrence than the actual objects. Indeed, at no point in the film does de Oliveira try to fool the eye into thinking that his painted backdrops are real. He makes them ever more gorgeous and compelling as the film’s space gradually expands, through his use of bright and contrasting colors and unusual spatial perspectives, while undoubtedly realizing that these ever more fantastic efforts will also make the backgrounds seem even more unreal. Long continuous takes with little or no change in camera position nonetheless combine with the brightness of these backgrounds to give them a mysterious, seductive power. But there is also no attempt to maintain consistency of illusion. The scene with the leaping whales continues into night, with a black background, which is followed by a new background set against the same ship consisting of a huge map of the world, which replaces the earlier sea and sky. Finally that map is replaced by giant colored spheres, which represent the sun, the moon, and finally the earth.

While these shifts relate to the characters’ discussion, they have all the surprise and inventiveness of an artist’s collage. In some of Joseph Cornell’s works, for instance, a magazine photo of a child will be set against another, serving as a background, that depicts a spectacular sunset. Two apparently banal images combine to create the sense of a gaze off into infinity. So it is with The Satin Slipper. De Oliveira has depicted the megalomaniacal scope of imperialist ambition. The actual physical distances of the world are effaced by the imagination of the Catholic colonizers who sought to unify all countries and cultures under a single creed and a single king. For them, the truest background is in fact the map of the world, which seeks to represent thousands of miles on inches of paper. Fundamental to the notion of the map is the idea that the world is a place that can be conceived of and encompassed by, and therefore ultimately controlled by, human will. Actual space collapses into that imagined unity the colonizers desired to effect.

But of course the colonizers failed, and the richness of de Oliveira’s double vision also acknowledges that failure, even seeing it as inevitable. As the film’s collage images become more spectacular, we become ever more aware of their strangeness, even their impossibility. Earlier in the film, a windmill is seen through a window, creating a wonderfully gentle presence against a painted moon, a presence that reminds one, perhaps, of the illustrations in a children’s picture book. While it does not have the complete impossibility of the map image, its illusion is a fragile one. The filmmaker has sought to render Spain’s brief period of wealth and glory in a series of spectacularly rich and sensual images, while at the same time suggesting through their strange juxtapositions that this period could not last, that all imperial ambitions are finally illusions. Indeed, one of the film’s most affecting moments occurs when the Spanish people and king briefly and falsely believe their armada has conquered England. This incident presents a double vision from its outset, since we know from history that such an event never occurred. The duality here is matched on a cinematic level by de Oliveira’s throne room for the king, at once monumentally imperious and utterly empty, a single wall of maplike images set against a largely vacant space.

The film’s dramatic and emotional climax comes at the end of the “third day.” Prouheze and Rodrigue finally meet, on Rodrigue’s ship off the coast of the Spanish colony of Mogador. She entrusts her daughter to him, and they discuss whether or not they can run off and find happiness together, but ultimately they must part, Prouheze perhaps going to her death. The background is a sky red as if with blood, the blood of Prouheze and others that will be spilled on her return. Here, as elsewhere, the text and cinematic technique prevent the usual kinds of character empathy from developing. But the absence of personalizing details, while preventing us from knowing the characters as particular humans, allows them to attain a more epic dimension. Themes of duty and predestination, of earthly versus spiritual love, come to the fore. The couple’s division comes not from incompatible personalities, a failure to love enough, nor even from the kind of cheap melodramatic obstacles — the secret childbirth, the unanswered telephone — that characterize popular fiction. Prouheze and Rodrigue cannot unite because of a fundamental condition of the universe. They cannot find physical happiness because all sensual things, from their own bodies to the brightly colored backgrounds to the lands of the Spanish Empire, are illusions that cannot last. It is de Oliveira’s cinematic portrayal of this condition, rather than any involvement with specifics of personality, that caused this final encounter, played out in a 16-minute take against a rustred sky, to leave me collapsed in tears.