‘The Fifth Empire’


Admirable in retrospect but maddening as it goes (and goes and goes), The Fifth Empire opens with a comet in the sky, a conversation in the dark, and a half-dozen or so arresting tableaux of men and architecture. This magnificent overture transports us to 16th-century Portugal—and deep in the thicket of Manoel de Oliveira’s imagination. Any hope that the great Portuguese master is in one of his more accessible moods is quickly dashed as the film grows progressively darker, talkative, and stubborn in the extreme. Adapted, intractably, from a play by José Régio, Empire unfolds in the court of King Sebastio (Ricardo Trêpa). Against the advice of his counselors, the young megalomaniac hatches a plan to conquer the Muslim world, unloading reams of declamatory discourse on the subject. Subtitled “Yesterday as Today,” the latest of Oliveira’s talking (and talking, and talking) pictures is one part avant-garde gloss on current affairs, one part “I’m 98 years old, and I’m-a do whatever I damn well please.”