One way of looking at Magic Mirror, a baffling opacity from Manoel de Oliveira, is easy enough. Every film is a magic mirror. Watching them, we regard ourselves, and what we find there depends on an infinite array of memories, capacities, tastes, and desires. (That a work of art is completed by its audience is a cliché insufficiently acknowledged when it comes to cinema, a medium highly involved with audience identification and conventional notions of authorship.) Flung through space, reflected into the eyes of the audience, a movie is released from the mind of its creator to be absorbed, and transformed, by that of its co-creator, the viewer. The nature of that absorption can be hazarded by the filmmaker, theorized by the academic, commented on by the critic, but the process is private, subjective, and ultimately beyond analysis.
Magic Mirror is not oblivious to these things. Indeed, the impression given by de Oliveira’s cinema is of an intelligence charged to an almost intolerable degree with attention to fundamental principles of art, spectatorship, civilization, you name it—his films are omnivorously ontological. Born in 1908, de Oliveira is one of the last living artists to bestride the entire 20th century. Prolific into the 21st, his recent movies have contemplated this fact. He has made a
Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), reflected on Word and Utopia (2000),
discoursed on The Uncertainty Principle (2002), and announced that I’m Going Home (2001). Directed by a man who remembers the silent era, A Talking Picture (2003) contemplated the voyage of Western culture toward a rendezvous with disaster. That de Oliveira conceived his apocalypse onboard a cruise ship piloted by John Malkovich speaks to the puckish swing of his philosophizing.
Unlike Jean-Luc Godard (born in 1930), who has long equated his own mortality with the lifespan of cinema, de Oliveira has a sense of humor about his role in the Long Goodbye of the Seventh Art.
Belle Toujours, an impish sequel to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour opening next month, is the work of a man whose confidence in his own powers is rivaled only by his capacity for self-amusement. It’s natural that the Portuguese master should now engage with his Spanish colleague, having achieved a late style equally (and ineffably) graced with supernal poise and high metaphysical humor.
Summarizing the plot of Magic Mirror is about as useful as diagramming the narrative of a Rilke poem, but here goes: Released from prison, handsome Luciano (Ricardo Trêpa) goes to work at the palatial country estate of Alfreda (Leonor Silveira), a chilly aristocrat obsessed by a desire to meet the Virgin Mary. While her husband noodles about in the music parlor, Alfreda discourses on religious topics with an assortment of male callers, including a scholar played by Michel Piccoli. Highlights: Was Mary rich or poor? Did Jesus wear socks with his sandals? Has anyone ever thought about the souls of the wealthy?
Enter the piano tuner and quasi-reformed forger Filipe (Luis Miguel Cintra) who, for reasons not entirely obvious, conspires with Luciano to hire a Mary doppelganger and arrange a visitation with Alfreda. Meanwhile, a mysterious Spanish nun (Marisa Paredes) materializes in the garden in order to add several thousand recondite words to the unabashedly literate, if semi-comprehensible script.
Academic theologians with a taste for obdurate Brechtian aesthetics, say hello to your new favorite film! Civilians, even those versed in Oliveira at his most extreme, may find their patience pushed to the limit. Thick with mirrors and breaches of the fourth wall, Magic Mirror is avidly aware of being watched, even as it rejects every avenue of accessibility. Based on a novel by Augustina Bessa- Luís, a frequent de Oliveira collaborator, the film is perversely textual, an endlessly talking picture seemingly addressed to no one but itself.
Were it not for de Oliveira’s visual elegance, contemplating this Mirror could, Medusa-like, turn your brain to stone. He has the inexplicable ability to make an endless, immobile medium-shot bristle with dynamism, and can, when he chooses, marshal spine-tingling montage. For the most part, however, word takes precedent over image—the great exception being an astonishing detour, deep into the film’s second hour, to Venice and Jerusalem. Spied from a recumbent point of view, summoned in the reflection of a gilt-edged mirror, these ecstatic shards of memory—frescoes, canals, twists in a labyrinth—suggest the immense reserve of pictorial prowess de Oliveira has kept under wraps. Their surpassing beauty arrives like a shock of recognition.