In A Talking Picture, a filmmaker who started his career in the silent era traces the birth—and contemplates the death—of Western civilization. Still astonishingly vital at 96, the Portuguese maestro Manoel de Oliveira here takes a becalmed trip through stormy waters. Serenely garrulous and weirdly soothing, at least until its climactic terror alert, the film could just as well take the title of any number of recent Oliveira movies: I’m Going Home, Word and Utopia, Voyage to the Beginning of the World.
As with Godard, each new Oliveira film registers as a memento mori. A Talking Picture opens with well-wishers at a pier in Lisbon, waving a long goodbye as the camera pulls away. History professor Rosa Maria (Oliveira regular Leonor Silveira) and her young daughter Maria Joana (Filipa de Almeida) are on a cruise to Bombay. Through the morning mist, Rosa Maria points out a monument and recounts the legend of Portuguese king Sebastian—setting the tone for an educational excursion that spans the Mediterranean and “thousands of years of civilization.” Maintaining a brisker pace than an Angelopoulos travelogue, the tour stops off at Pompeii, the Acropolis, and the Pyramids; throughout, little Maria Joana acts as blank, baffled slate, soaking in the contradictions of history. Poised to the point of stiltedness, the parent-child exchanges are strictly informational: The inquisitive girl asks leading questions (“Which Middle Ages are we in now?”), and her impassive mother disgorges reams of encyclopedic dialogue. Passersby offer perspective and diversion: A wizened Marseilles fisherman bemoans the world’s reliance on oil (“But we can’t turn back the clock”); an Orthodox priest outside the Parthenon narrates the myth of Athena; Portuguese actor Luís Miguel Cintra pops up, as himself, at the foot of the Pyramids.
Despite touristy locales, the film’s style is so austere as to be almost primitive. Oliveira barely moves the camera and rarely emphasizes the imposing backdrops. Forward motion is established with the same deadpan shot of the ship’s prow cutting through the water. The action goes below deck midway, as Captain John Malkovich engages in a multilingual dinner conversation with a French businesswoman (Catherine Deneuve), a Greek actress (Irene Papas), and an Italian ex-supermodel (Stefania Sandrelli). Discussing love and death, civilization and its discontents, American imperialism and English as lingua franca, Malkovich and the three divas all speak in their native tongues. It’s a nutty, boldly extended set piece, though the mood of giddy equanimity softens the eccentric showboating—and thoroughly dispels the queasy imminence of the time frame (an opening title places the action in July 2001). All of which makes the final act even more shocking. Oliveira unleashes the clash of civilizations that we belatedly realize has been simmering all film long: Pointedly, the tragedy is set in motion when the ship is docked in the Red Sea port of Aden, gateway between East and West. It’s a stunningly bleak conclusion—despairing over the survival of the species as it severs the ties between past and future.