Manoel de Oliveira: Man of the Century


The last working director to begin his career during the period of silent movies, Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira has lived to celebrate his own centennial, marked this month at the BAM Cinematheque.

Oliveira started with avant-garde documentaries in 1929 but was unable to raise the money for a feature until 1942. That film, Aniki-Bobo (a lyrical urchin opera strongly influenced by Jean Vigo and shot mainly around the Oporto waterfront), opens BAM’s 16-feature retro; it’s screening with Oliveira’s latest, Christopher Columbus, the Enigma. An essay that sets out to discover the admiral’s supposed Portuguese ancestry, Christopher Columbus also provides a personal local appearance in the form of the charming sequence wherein the filmmaker and his wife contemplate the enigma of Columbus Circle.

An amateur who spent decades managing his father’s lighting-fixture factory and hence managed only two features before 1970, Oliveira’s career has a unique trajectory: He hit his stride in his late 60s, soon after Portugal’s “Revolution of the Carnations,” and become ever more prolific as he aged—over half his movies have been made since turning 80. No less idiosyncratic in his methodology, Oliveira characterized the cinema as a technology for preserving theater. His specialty is the minimalist costume drama, mostly adapted from unpromising literary material, often Portuguese classics. Filmed (or perhaps documented) in a straightforwardly theatrical, not to mention literal-minded, fashion, these productions seem as visionary as Robert Wilson’s operas.

The BAM retro includes Oliveira’s “Tetralogy of Frustrated Love”: The Past and Present (1971), Benilde or the Virgin Mother (1975), the 4½-hour Doomed Love (1978), and the masterpiece Francisca (1981). These movies brought his distinctive blend of 19th-century melodrama and 20th-century modernism to the forefront of European art film. Since then, the director has worked as though each movie could be his last, couching potential final testaments in a variety of related modes. Some are stringent historical reconstructions, like Non or the Vain Glory of Command (1990) and Day of Despair (1992); others take the form of avant-garde treatments of premodern texts, notably the elliptical and lurid Uncertainty Principle (2002), or else savagely postmodern parodies of European modernism, such as The Cannibals (1988) and The Divine Comedy (1991), which envisions Western civilization as a madhouse.

Oliveira may be ageless, but his use of intertextuality extends to himself. He has mocked his own mortality with several rueful elegies. Two of these, Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), with Marcello Mastroianni as a veteran theater director, and I’m Going Home (2002), starring Michel Piccoli as an elderly actor, may be as close as this singular figure has come to making commercial movies—or autobiography. The Talking Pictures of Manoel de Oliveira, March 7 through 30, BAM. Oliveira will appear in person for a post-screening Q&A on March 7.