Gebo and the Shadow is a film about concrete, hard, and material things, as well as one about illusions. Its dramatic elements are simple. The 105-year-old filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s adaptation of Raul Brandão’s 1923 play unfolds almost entirely over one night in a modest home’s living room, around whose table a small group of friends and family members gather by candlelight to share food, drinks, and everyday concerns. The presentation is simple as well. Shots are held on static frames within which actors sometimes converse for more than 10 minutes, directly facing the camera as though inviting us to share their company.
In keeping with Brandão, the plot of the Portuguese Oliveira’s 31st feature film is clear and straightforward. It concerns Gebo (Michael Lonsdale), an elderly, stooped accountant whose sense of duty leaves him working late hours to keep his impoverished family afloat. He arrives home one evening, like every, to his wife, Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), who keeps him company with coffee and an embittered lifetime’s worth of complaints.
Doroteia vents her pain over the absence of the couple’s son, João, for whom she has longed since he abandoned them and his wife, Sofia (Leonor Silveira), eight years prior. At moments when Doroteia cannot hear them, the patriarch and his daughter-in-law discuss their shared awareness that João has long since turned petty thief, along with the dreadful possibility of his return. Gebo insists that they not tell Doroteia news of her son (“Lie, Gebo, deceive her,” he says to himself), for fear that the truth will kill her.
The family members are soon visited by regular, comforting old friends (Jeanne Moreau and Luís Miguel Cintra), as well as by a suddenly reemerged João (Ricardo Trêpa), who mocks his elders’ sheltered lifestyle while gazing hungrily at a satchel full of money that Gebo has brought home from work. Once the characters’ conflicts are established, it grows clear that this tale will have a tragic end. The chief question becomes not whether fate can be avoided, but rather, as with death and taxes, how long it can be delayed.
Oliveira originally sought out his countryman Brandão’s seldom-performed play (translated into French for the film) in order to comment on Portugal’s crippling recent economic crisis, implicit in the characters’ different reactions to their places at society’s bottom. The poignant fragility of their circumstances is embodied by the aging veteran actors who play them, in particular Oliveira’s two leads. Cardinale was idolized in films by Fellini, Leone, and Visconti half a century ago, and here imbues Doroteia with the weight of a faded beauty queen acting out an idyllic past. The pudgy octogenarian Lonsdale, in contrast, has long been part of the French film tradition of schlumpy everymen whose characters live in the shadow of their beloveds. He offers a perceptive take on Gebo as a guarded person who is ironbound to his needs to serve his society, his profession, and his dear ones, and who sacrifices himself daily for their sakes.