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“Whether we like it or not, it (death) will come one day, but generally people are not in a hurry, and I personally have never been in a hurry in my life; this is perhaps why I reached this age.”
– Manoel de Oliveira, on the occasion of his 103rd birthday, as quoted in Goncalves 2

By the time of his death on April 2, 2015 at the remarkable age of 106, the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira was the oldest living filmmaker still actively working within the industry, and also the filmmaker with the longest career in the cinema, having directed films since 1927, beginning with a tantalizing project on the First World War that was never completed. If you consider that 1927 project Oliveira’s baptism in the cinema, then he had been a director for 88 years, longer than most of us manage simply to stay alive.

As critic Ali Jaafar noted in Deadline,

The latter half of his long, and critically acclaimed, career would see him earn a dozen career achievement prizes from major film festivals, including two career Venice Golden Lions (in 1985 and 2004) and a special jury prize for 1991’s The Divine Comedy (A Divina Comédia). In 1999, he took home the Cannes jury prize for The Letter (La Lettre).

Unapologetically art house and cerebral in taste, De Oliveira confounded his peers with both his longevity as well as the consistency of his output in his latter years.  He got better with age, making a film a year once he turned 80 until his death. De Oliveira was born into privilege. His industrialist father, amongst other things, produced Portugal’s first electric light bulb. Finding himself out of favor under the iron rule of Portugal’s Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932-1968, De Oliveira found it similarly difficult under the socialist government in the early 1970’s as his upper class roots counted against him. Nevertheless, he persisted with his dream to become a filmmaker, even while he managed his family’s factory well into middle age. 3

During all this time, Oliveira developed a style that was so uniquely his own as to be instantly identifiable, something like the rigorousness of Straub and Huillet with a more emotional and less didactic edge, but nevertheless still challenging for most viewers. Yet it took the world quite a long time for the public to finally catch up with Manoel de Oliveira after nearly a century’s worth of work; it was only in his last decades, from the late 1980s onward, that he was acknowledged as an absolute master of the cinema.

One of the things that strikes me about Oliveira’s films is their continual ability to surprise, and despite the seeming severity of his cinematic syntax, there’s still an air of youthfulness about his work, which extends to his press conferences and public appearances; at the age of 99, he actually danced on stage with the vocal group Sweet and Tender (you can see the clip on YouTube) to celebrate his birthday; he was supposed to simply sit and watch, but that’s not Oliveira’s style. Rising from his chair, he joined the dancers, and even made up some additional choreography for the group on the spot, as the dancers raced to keep up with his improvisational moves.

Born on December 11, 1908 to wealthy parents, who owned both factories and a good deal of land, much of it given over to mass agricultural farming (as Oliveira was fond of pointing out, his name means “olive tree” in Portuguese), Manoel Cândido Pinto de Oliveira grew up working for his father’s business as an executive, while at the same time pursuing an interesting side career as a racing car driver and, in his youth, was the Portuguese national pole vaulting champion, with ambitions to be an actor. But after he saw Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), which had an enormous impact on the young cineaste, he embarked on a career in direction in earnest.

Oliveira’s first real film as a director, which can been seen as a companion film on the DVD of the director’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), was the documentary Douro, Faina Fluvial (Labor on the Douro River, 1931), an elegiac yet clear-eyed examination of life and work along the Douro, which won him immediate attention, though not always uniform critical approbation. The DVD also includes an interview with Oliveira shot during the production of the film, entitled Absoluto, in which he contemplates the moral bankruptcy of modern cinema, rattles off a list of his favorite directors (including Godard, Bresson, Kiarostami, Welles, Ford, and numerous others), and deplores the “brain washing” that is currently taking place with the “forced consensus” of mass media. It’s fascinating, essential viewing, demonstrating the director’s humility as an artist, but also his resilience.

O Acto da Primavera (The Rite of Spring, 1963)

After that, Oliveira made roughly one film per year, except for a long gap between 1942 and 1956, after his film Aniki Bóbó (1942), a semi-Neorealist film that used non-professional children as the main actors, failed with the both critics and the public. But with the 1956’s short documentary film O Pintor e a Cidade (The Artist and The City), Oliveira’s first film in color, and his subsequent masterpiece O Acto da Primavera (The Rite of Spring, 1963), the director began solidifying his reputation as a revolutionary and utterly uncompromising artist. The Rite of Spring took most observers completely by surprise; for much of the film, it’s an unadorned color documentary of the Passion play performed by amateur actors in outdoor settings, filmed for the most part with natural light, with just a few cutaways of spectators watching the performance, and Oliveira’s crew filming the entire presentation.

The dialogue isn’t spoken so much as it’s sung in a sort of Gregorian chant that becomes as hypnotic as the camera’s insistent gaze at the actors, who give themselves over wholly to their performances, which are presented with raw authenticity and minimal artifice. And then comes a profound shock: the film abandons its supposed documentary style, and cuts to a series of atom bomb blasts and scenes of war and violence, as if to suggest that in the midst of such human suffering faith is not only possible, but absolutely necessary for the survival of humanity.

Coming after such a rigorously ascetic series of scenes filmed with almost no camera movement, devoid of spectacle and filmed with a definite sense of detachment, these final scenes are stunning in their editorial audacity; there’s simply no way one could imagine that the film would move in this direction. But upon reflection, these final scenes bring the entire film into focus, and reveal a Buñuelian savagery that has been lurking just beneath the surface of the film all along. Yet for most of his career, Oliveira laboured in relative obscurity, and his films are only randomly available in the United States and other markets on DVD, rendering most of them nearly impossible to see. Indeed, The Rite of Spring was all but unavailable in any format, even 35mm, until Joshua Siegel at the Museum of Modern Art struck new prints of the film for the To Save and Project series in October 2010.

O Convento (The Convent, 1995)

Oliveira uses the same measured style to tackle a wide variety of subjects in his most successful works, such as O Convento (The Convent, 1995), a supernatural tale of good and evil in constant struggle; the unrelentingly clinical Je rentre à la maison (I’m Going Home, 2002), in which Michel Piccoli plays an actor whose life is thrown into crisis when his wife, their daughter and her husband are killed in a car crash; Um Filme Falado (A Talking Picture, 2003), in which an extended round the world trip on a cruise ship is interrupted by a terrorist attack in the film’s final moments; Belle Toujours (2006), Oliveira’s suitably brief and twisted homage to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour; and Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura (Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, 2009) in which a young woman, engaged to be married, is revealed as a kleptomaniac. This is just a small sampling of Oliveira’s output; one could easily name a number of additional, equally compelling titles. Each film is different, and yet they all share a common theme; the importance, indeed the essentiality, of humanity, faith, and perseverance.

As he does in Rite of Spring, Oliveira often tests the patience of his audience by slowly developing a narrative that seems to be going nowhere, or at least taking its time to get from one point to the next, only to bring the viewer up short in the final moments of a film. In A Talking Picture, for example, John Malkovich, a frequent Oliveira collaborator, is cast as the captain of a luxury liner, which makes leisurely stops at various points of call around the globe, where the local culture is foregrounded in a series of almost “instructional” sequences that seems to exist outside of time, as if the passengers are travelling endlessly, and will never reach – and indeed, never wish to reach – their destination. Yet in the film’s final moments, as the captain discovers that two bombs have been planted on board and tries desperately to evacuate the ship before they detonate, time becomes utterly precious. It’s the final conclusion of the film (which I don’t want to give away) that once again calls everything before it into question, and ultimately frames the film as a modern parable.

Working with such top-flight actors as Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale, Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, Oliveira has forged a legacy that is at once unique and deeply satisfying. Working with actors, Oliveira is matter-of-factly hands off, noting that “I give them full freedom because I don’t like when they act. I want them to embody the role, and acting is false. Of course, I will give them pointers, but they already know their role. These are intelligent people, like you and me, and everyone does things in their own way, and their own role.” 4

Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo (Voyage to the Beginning of the World, 1997)

Oliveira was in his 80s and 90s, when, against all odds, his career really took off on an international scale, with the release of Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo (Voyage to the Beginning of the World, 1997), starring Marcello Mastroianni in his last role as an aging film director revisiting the locations of his youth. Indeed, his later films are some of his best, especially the aforementioned The Strange Case of Angelica, which J. Hoberman picked as the best film of that year, noting in the The Village Voice that “my favorite movie of 2010 (sneaked) into town three days before the year (ended) . . . (and) includes the 101-year-old director’s first use of CGI in his debut dream sequence . . . (the film) is as funny and peculiar as its title promises. Putting his own eccentric spin on the myth of Orpheus, the last working filmmaker to have been born during the age of the nickelodeon offers a modest, ultimately sublime meditation on the photographic essence of the motion-picture medium, as glimpsed in the half-light of eternity.” 5 The film is a luminous vision of the past caught up to the present, in which Oliveira embraces contemporary digital technology while at the same time holding fast to the values of an earlier era.

As with many of Oliveira’s films, The Strange Case of Angelica seems to exist outside of time, in a place where the conventions and technology of the 1950s collide, or uneasily co-exist, with realities of the present day. Angélica (Pilar López de Ayala), a young woman from a wealthy family who has just been married, dies unexpectedly, and Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), a young freelance photographer, is summoned to take a picture of Angélica on her deathbed. When he arrives at the family’s palatial mansion, filled with mourners, he sets to work to take Angélica’s photograph, only to discover that she seems to come to life when he looks through the lens of his camera. No one else can see this; for the rest of the world, Angélica is dead.

Returning to his small apartment in a boarding house, Isaac develops the pictures of Angélica, and once again, as he hangs the photographic prints up to dry, Angélica seems to come to life in the photographs. Thunderstruck by this development, Isaac begins to withdraw from the world around him, as Angélica’s presence becomes more and more “real” with each passing day. She visits him at night, transporting him into the sky for a nocturnal flight over the countryside; Isaac stops eating, and becomes ever more withdrawn, as the other boarders at his small pension become increasingly concerned about his well-being.

The Strange Case of Angelica (2010)

But Isaac is moving towards Angélica, and life after death, and in the final, astonishing sequence, his body falls away from him using CGI technology, as he drifts out the window to join Angélica in eternal happiness. As with many of Oliveira’s films, this isn’t the “happy ending” we expect, but nevertheless, it seems absolutely correct in retrospect. Isaac is “too good” for this world; he barely scrapes by on what he earns, and rather than photographing the wealthy for higher fees (Angélica’s case is an exception for him) he prefers to document the workers in the fields nearby, honouring labour above wealth.

What’s stunning about the film is the absolute assurance with which Oliveira crafts his images, never in a hurry to achieve an effect, always ready to take as much as time as necessary to stop and listen as the boarders in the film engage in a philosophical argument. Like Isaac, Oliveira is a labourer in the field of life, who, though born into wealth and privilege, feels more at home documenting the travails of those who are barely getting by. Gebo and his Shadow (O Gebo e a Sombra (Gebo and the Shadow, 2012), one of Oliveira’s last films, was made “because I met someone who told me she likes my films and asked why I didn’t do a film about poverty, about poor people. . . the film is a severe criticism of the current situation. The fact of having represented the period in which it was written – the early twentieth century – makes it less aggressive than if it had shown the modern world. The film is not aggressive but it makes a point” 6

Oliveira’s stripped-down style is simplicity itself. He never moves the camera unless it’s absolutely necessary, and his favourite compositions are static wide shots, including a group of people, which often run for several minutes at a time. He wasn’t a director who takes on assignments for others; he worked only on projects that interested him, and when he tackled something, he usually finished it fairly quickly, doing two to three takes of each scene before moving on to the next set-up. With the shift to digital cinema, which Oliveira immediately embraced, the director started editing his films digitally; his studio contained a small Apple computer setup that allowed him to work on his films at home, so that his cinematic life and his daily life became inextricably intertwined. Oliveira lived to work.

In a 2012 interview, at the age of 103, Oliveira expanded on this theme, commenting that “you see, nature has given man hunger and this forces him to work, otherwise he wouldn’t do anything. We all get hungry, no matter what age you are. Therefore the elderly are not distinguished from the young because they are both hungry.” 7 Oliveira’s long journey has resulted in one of the most resonant careers in cinema history. Though Oliveira is a rather severe stylist, his work has remarkable range and depth, and each of his films is quite different from the ones that came before it; although he insisted that all his films were religious, he nevertheless was most at home contemplating the foibles of humankind.

Shortly after the release of Gebo and the Shadow, Oliveira made a short film, O Conquistador Conquistado, which appeared as a segment of the multi-part feature Centro Histórico (Historical Center, 2012; Oliveira’s co-directors on the project were Pedro Costa, Victor Erice, and the maverick Aki Kaurismäki). His final projects included the short film The Old Man of Belem (O Velho do Restelo), which was completed in 2014, and subsequently screened at the 71st Venice Film Festival, a film he had wanted to make in the studio but was forced by declining health to shoot in a garden near his home in Porto. Though the film contained clips from some of his earlier work, he declared that the film wasn’t a valedictory address to his public and proved it by continuing on to make two additional short films, Chafariz das Virtudes (Fountain of Virtues, 2014), a one minute trailer for the 2014 edition of the Biennale, and finally Um Século de Energia (A Century of Energy, 2015), a 15 minute film which proved to be his last work.

In an era in which we are being assaulted on all sides by an avalanche of images from seemingly innumerable platforms, the clarity and precision of Oliveira’s meditational films is a striking antidote to the endless cutting of contemporary commercial films that are afraid to bore their audiences, using 26 shots when one would suffice admirably, simply to keep the viewer’s attention. With Oliveira’s long setups, one has a chance to acclimate one’s self to the world he creates, to pick out details within the composition on the screen, to become a part of the life of his characters. As a man of deep faith (he was an ardent Catholic) Oliveira believed that during one’s time on Earth, one must keep on creating new work for as long as possible, looking towards the next day with a sense of realistic hope, soldiering on in the face of what must inevitably come to all of us.

As the critic Neil Young noted of Gebo and the Shadow, “when it comes to current cinema, there is retro, there is old-fashioned, and there is Manoel de Oliveira, the 103-year-old from Portugal whose style hasn’t changed that much through an utterly unique seven-decade filmmaking career . . . (in Gebo and the Shadow) the hazily soft glow of interior illumination from gas and candles (reminds) us that Manoel de Oliveira is the only filmmaker on the planet who can actually remember what the light was really like in the 1910s.” 8 It’s this authentic recall of the past that sets Oliveira apart from all his peers; he remembered a world that has now all but vanished from our collective memory, and makes it live again.

O Gebo e a Sombra (Gebo and his Shadow, 2012)

Oliveira was also a trickster of sorts, given to surprise twists at the end of his films, and as a last gift to the world, he left another surprise: a film shot in 1982, but never released. Thus, on May 4, 2015, his estate released Oliveira’s last film, Visita ou Memórias e Confissões (Visit, or Memories and Confessions), when the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

As critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote of the film,

Visit is—it should come as a surprise to no one—an intensely personal movie, essentially a family album in motion. “It’s a film by me, about me,” Oliveira says in voiceover as the movie begins. “Right or wrong, it’s done.” . . . Much of Visit concerns the haunting emptiness of this once-bustling home: We hear constant footsteps and watch doors open, Jean Cocteau–style, as we move from room to room, but a good portion of the film goes by before we actually see a human being. The first is Oliveira himself, who appears at the typewriter where he writes his treatments and turns to the camera to address us . . . Late in the film, in a powerful anecdote, he speaks of his 1963 arrest by the secret police under Portugal’s then-repressive government. “I’ve always sacrificed everything so I could make my films,” he says. 9

Cahiers du Cinema paid Oliveira perhaps the ultimate tribute when they described him as being, “sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce” 10. With his passing, we have lost this link to the past, but his films thankfully remain as a testament to his vision, offering us a glimpse of a world at once tantalizing and almost lost to authentic recall. Oliveira’s vision was unique, and his films were sometimes difficult to process, which is precisely the way he envisioned his work. His films often difficult to open up, resisting easy interpretation, and each one is different from the others, but when they reveal their secrets on the cinema screen, they light up an entirely different, and deeply personal world that is Oliveira’s alone.

Filmography:

2015 Um Século de Energia (Documentary short)
2014 Chafariz das Virtudes (Short)
2014 O Velho do Restelo (Short)
2012 Centro Histórico (segment “O Conquistador Conquistado”)
2012 Invisible World (segment “Do Visível ao Invisível”)
2012 Gebo et l’ombre
2010 Painéis de São Vicente de Fora – Visão Poética (Short)
2010 The Strange Case of Angelica
2009 Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl
2008 Romance de Vila do Conde (Short)
2008 O Vitral e a Santa Morta (Short)
2007 Cristóvão Colombo – O Enigma
2007 To Each His Own Cinema (segment “Rencontre Unique”)
2006 O Improvável Não é Impossível (Short)
2006 Belle toujours
2005 Do Visível ao Invisível (Short)
2005 Magic Mirror
2004 The Fifth Empire
2003 A Talking Picture
2002 Pedro Abrunhosa: Momento (Video short)
2002 The Uncertainty Principle
2001 Porto of My Childhood
2001 I’m Going Home
2000 Word and Utopia
1999 La lettre
1998 Anxiety
1997 En une poignée de mains amies (Short)
1997 Voyage to the Beginning of the World
1996 The Party
1995 The Convent
1994 A Caixa
1993 Abraham’s Valley
1992 O Dia do Desespero
1991 A Divina Comédia
1990 ‘Non’, ou A Vã Glória de Mandar
1988 A Propósito da Bandeira Nacional (Documentary short)
1988 Os Canibais
1986 Mon cas
1986 Simpósio Internacional de Escultura em Pedra (TV Movie documentary)
1985 The Satin Slipper
1983 Capitali culturali d’Europa (TV Series documentary) (1 episode)
Cultural Lisbon (1983)
1983 Nice – À propos de Jean Vigo (Documentary)
1981 Francisca
1978 Ill-Fated Love (TV Mini-Series) (3 episodes)
1975 Benilde or The Virgin Mother
1972 Past and Present (as Manuel de Oliveira)
1965 As Pinturas do Meu Irmão Júlio (Documentary short)
1964 Villa Verdinho – Uma Aldeia Transmontana (Documentary short)
1964 The Hunt (Short) (as Manuel de Oliveira)
1963 Acto da Primavera
1959 O Pão (Documentary)
1958 O Coração (Documentary short)
1957 A Visita a Portugal da Rainha Isabel II da Grã Bretanha (Documentary short) (uncredited)
1956 The Artist and the City (Documentary short)
1942 Aniki Bóbó (as Manuel de Oliveira)
1941 Famalicão (Documentary short)
1938 Miramar, Praia das Rosas (Documentary short)
1938 Já Se Fabricam Automóveis em Portugal (Documentary short)
1937 Os Últimos Temporais: Cheias do Tejo (Documentary short)
1932 Estátuas de Lisboa (Documentary short)
1932 Hulha Branca (Documentary short)
1931 Labor on the Douro River (Documentary short)

Articles in Senses of Cinema:

Randal Johnson, “Against the Grain: On the Cinematic Vision of Manoel de Oliveira”, Senses of Cinema 28, http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/de_oliveira/

Yaniv Eyny and A. Zubatov, “Voyage to the End of the World: Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture“, Senses of Cinema 33, http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/feature-articles/a_talking_picture/

Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Acto de Primavera and the Uncompromising Vision of Manoel de Oliveira”, Senses of Cinema 60, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/cteq/acto-de-primavera-and-the-uncompromising-vision-of-manoel-de-oliveira/

David Heslin, “The God Anhedonia: Manoel de Oliveira’s Francisca“, Senses of Cinema 80, http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/cteq/francisca/

Endnotes:

  1. Portions of this essay originally appeared in the article: Wheeler Winston Dixon, “The Second Century of Manoel de Oliveira,” Film Quarterly 66.2 (2013): 44-47; reprinted by permission.
  2. Elza Goncalves, “The ‘Youth’ of Centenarian Filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira,” Euronews, 1 June 2012, http://www.euronews.com/2012/06/01/at-103-years-old-the-youth-of-manoel-de-oliveira
  3. Ali Jafaar,“Manoel De Oliveira Dies: Cannes & Venice Winner And World’s Oldest Filmmaker Was 106,” Deadline, April 2, 2015, https://deadline.com/2015/04/manoel-de-oliveira-world-oldest-filmmaker-dies-106-venice-cannes-1201403371/
  4. Elza Goncalves, “The ‘Youth’ of Centenarian Filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira,” Euronews, 1 June 2012, http://www.euronews.com/2012/06/01/at-103-years-old-the-youth-of-manoel-de-oliveira
  5. Jim Hoberman, “Year in Film: Hoberman’s Top 10,” The Village Voice, 22 December 2010, https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/12/22/year-in-film-hobermans-top-10/
  6. Elza Goncalves, “The ‘Youth’ of Centenarian Filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira,” Euronews, 1 June 2012, http://www.euronews.com/2012/06/01/at-103-years-old-the-youth-of-manoel-de-oliveira
  7. Ibidem
  8. Neil Young, “Gebo and the Shadow (Gebo et l’Ombre): Venice Review,” The Hollywood Reporter, 5 Sept. 2012, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/gebo-and-the-shadow-venice-review-368080
  9. Ben Kenigsberg, “Cannes 2015: Manoel de Oliveira’s Visit, or Memories and Confessions,” Rogerebert.com, 22 May 2015, https://www.rogerebert.com/cannes/cannes-2015-manoel-de-oliveiras-visit-or-memories-and-confessions
  10. As quoted on Dennis Lim, “Manoel de Oliveira, Pensive Filmmaker Who Made Up for Lost Time, Dies at 106,” The New York Times, 2 April 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/arts/manoel-de-oliveira-pensive-filmmaker-who-made-up-for-lost-time-is-dead.html

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press. Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (Rutgers University Press, 2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third revised and expanded edition was published in 2018. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema: A Brief History (2015) was featured on Turner Classic Movies as part of their series “Artists in Black and White.” Dixon’s newest books are A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (co-authored with Richard Graham (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); and The Life and Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (Auteur Press / Columbia University Press, 2017). Forthcoming is Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (Palgrave/Macmillan).