When people ask me who my favorite contemporary director is, I answer without hesitation: Manoel de Oliveira. At 102, he is the oldest living filmmaker, and also the filmmaker with the longest career, but he is also one of the most consistently original and challenging filmmakers the medium has ever known. Actually, I came to Oliveira rather late his career – or just when he was hitting his stride, depending on how you look at it – with Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo (Voyage to the Beginning of the World, 1997), which I saw late one night in the summer of 1998 at a theatre in Greenwich Village. I hustled in just as the film started, and was immediately transported by the quiet serenity and assured mastery of Oliveira’s direction, in this semi-autobiographical tale of a film director revisiting the places of his youth. Marcello Mastroianni, in his final role, played the director, named Manoel, and the film is a leisurely meditation on youth, mortality, change, time, and the seasons of nature and one’s life.
But Oliveira’s films require a great deal from their audiences, depending as they do on lengthy dialogue sequences, long takes, and deceptively simple editorial construction, which is, in fact, remarkably complex. If you’re expecting a J. J. Abrams film, you’ll soon be heading for the exit. And this is precisely what happened as the film unspooled; at first, there were a few impatient walkouts, but at the 40-minute mark, roughly half the audience rose as one and left the screening room. But for those of us who remained – some 40 or so people – there was a strong sense that we were glad to see them go, and one could perceptibly sense the remaining viewers concentrating on the film with an intensity one seldom experiences when watching any film. As a group, we realised that Oliveira wanted us to be the co-creators of the film; we would have to give ourselves to the film, and then it would reveal its secrets to us. When the film ended some 40 minutes later, everyone in the room remained transfixed in their seats as the end credits rolled, and as we walked out of the theatre there were smiles all around. The screening had been a shared, communal experience in which the audience and film became one, and I was hooked; Oliveira was clearly a master.
Since then, I’ve made it my business to track down as many films of Oliveira’s as I can, from his debut feature Aniki-Bóbó (1942), to his later films Non, ou a Vã Gloria de Mandar (No, or the Vain Glory of Command, 1990), O Convento (The Convent, 1995), Je rentre à la maison (I’m Going Home, 2002), Um Filme Falado (A Talking Picture, 2003), Belle Toujours (2006), Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura (Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, 2009), O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica, 2010), and numerous other films, often working with international casts, especially the actors John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve, and Michel Piccoli. Notice a pattern here? That’s right: Oliveira is now, at 102, at his most active as a filmmaker, creating masterpieces one after the other, writing or co-writing as well as directing the films.
I would argue that these recent films are the most stunning of Oliveira’s long career. For the last 20 years, Oliveira has directed at least one film a year, effectively reaching his peak starting at age 82, from a career that began as a documentarist in 1931. Questioned in 2008, on the event of his 100th birthday, as to “the secret” of what kept him motivated, Oliveira’s response was as direct and unequivocal as his films: “There is no secret – it is work! It is doing something, it is a natural impulsion. […] Cinema is a mirror of life. I believe that it is not one simple mirror, there is no other! Film-making is the only reflection of life. And, as well as being a reflection of life, it is also a record of life.” (1)
And a curious career it has been in every respect. Born on 11 December 1908 in Porto, Portugal to a wealthy family, with commercial interests in industry and agriculture, Oliveira originally thought of becoming an actor, but then was impressed by a screening of Walter Ruttmann’s classic documentary Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), and turned to film direction. He made his first film, a documentary short entitled Douro, Faina Fluvial (Labour on the Douro) in 1931. (During this period, he also pursued an avocation as a racing car driver.)
Douro, Faina Fluvial was followed by more documentary shorts, from 1932 to 1941, until he made his feature debut with the aforementioned Aniki-Bóbó in 1942, an allegorical tale shot in a spare, direct manner, with a cast composed for the most part of children. But the film failed to catch fire with audiences of the period, although it is now routinely recognised as a masterpiece, and, along with Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935), as a forerunner of the neo-realist school of filmmaking. The rough, direct style of the film proved that Oliveira wasn’t really interested in “entertaining” his audiences in the classical sense of the word; in reality, he was really making the film for himself, by his own rules, and the public used to being catered to, dismissed the film as harsh and uncompromising.
With the commercial failure of the Aniki-Bóbó, Oliveira returned to the family estate, where he oversaw the winemaking interests of his family, and didn’t re-emerge as a filmmaker until 1956, with the half-hour short O Pintor e a Cidade (The Artist and the City), which documents a painter (António Cruz) who paints what he sees during his daily travels throughout the director’s hometown. Other short documentaries again followed, until Oliveira took the plunge with the feature-length Acto de Primavera (The Rites of Spring, 1963), which is, on the surface, another documentary, this time documenting a group of non-professional actors performing a version of the Passion Play, which, in the words of Randal Johnson,
documents a version of [… the Passion Play] derived from the 16th-century Auto da Paixão, by Francisco Vaz de Guimarães. Oliveira had come across the drama in the small town of Curalha when he was looking for locations for his 1959 documentary, O Pão (Bread), and he was so taken by it that he wanted to return and register it on film […]
Oliveira did not simply record the popular drama as it took place, but rather re-enacted it in the same locale and with the same non-professional actors as its “real” representation. In this sense it is a re-presentation of a representation. But it goes far beyond that. The film offers scenes of the townspeople/actors preparing for their roles, shots of flyers announcing the spectacle, and other aspects of the town’s daily life. It also inserts additional fictional elements into the narrative, as when a family of middle-class tourists stops by to gawk condescendingly at the rural people engaged in their religious re-enactment. Oliveira also turns the camera on himself and his small crew as they prepare to film. Acto is neither fiction nor documentary; rather, it is both at the same time.
This bridge between the actual and the fictive is something that Oliveira considers in all his works, but in Acto de Primavera, the footage is raw, shot on location using mostly natural light, entirely outdoors, and the intensity of the actors’ performances is conveyed to the audience through the director’s insistence on long takes, unadorned with special effects, in addition to the fact that the entire film is “sung” as a sort of Gregorian chant, which renders the text hypnotic and compelling.
Nicolau Nunes da Silva, who plays Christ, gives a particularly strong performance, and the sequence near the beginning of the film, in which a group of tourists contemplate the action with a mixture of curiosity and derision, adds to the Brechtian atmosphere of the film. In contrast to Oliveira’s later works, in which the images are highly polished, here, working in naturalistic colour, the director creates a film of earth tones, flesh and fabrics, as the brightly coloured homemade costumes of the participants dominate the film’s stripped-down mise en scène. There is also, at the conclusion of the film, a surprise ending of sorts (though Oliveira certainly wouldn’t have considered it as such) which lifts the film entirely out of the realm of documentary, and initiates a new way of seeing the entirety of Acto de Primavera for the audience. I don’t want to give it away here; it’s better that you experience it for yourself.
I first saw Acto de Primavera at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in October 2010, in a magnificently restored print, as part of a series entitled To Save and Project, curated by Joshua Siegel. The audience, of course, was not uneducated in Oliveira’s work, but here again, as the 94-minute film unspooled, there were at first a few walkouts, then a mass walkout halfway through. As with my first initiation into Oliveira’s work, the remaining audience seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief; now the serious work of watching the film could begin without interruption. As the film’s last moments unspooled, the audience was stunned by the audacity of the director’s truly shocking conclusion to the work, as you will be, as well. Oliveira went on from the triumph of this film to become Portugal’s foremost director, a regular figure on the festival circuit, and at the age of 102 – long may he live – one of the most daring, modern, and uncompromising of filmmakers. Oliveira’s vision in Acto de Primavera is resolutely his own, without compromise or commercial mediation. It is also one of the most compelling, unyielding and riveting films of the director’s long career, and remains in one’s memory long after the last images have faded from the screen.
- “Manoel de Oliveira: The Oldest Working Film Director”, Euronews 9 December 2008: http://www.euronews.net/2008/12/09/manoel-de-oliveira-the-oldest-working-film-director/.
- Randal Johnson, “Against the Grain: On the Cinematic Vision of Manoel de Oliveira”, Senses of Cinema no. 28, 2003: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/de_oliveira/.
Acto de Primavera/Rite of Spring (1963 Portugal 94 mins)
Prod, Dir, Phot, Ed: Manoel de Oliveira Scr: Manoel de Oliveira, based on the novel Auto da Paixão by Francisco Vaz de Guimarães
Cast: Nicolau Nunes da Silva, Ermelinda Pires, Maria Madalena, Luís de Sousa, Francisco Luís, Renato Palhares, Germando Carneiro, José Fonseca