Friday, April 3, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira, silent era-yesterday

You may have noticed that your movie-loving friend (not the one who sees every blockbuster on opening night, but the one who reads books on film/prefers 35mm to digital projection but owns a multi-region DVD player) is a little down today. You may have asked your friend what was wrong, and s/he would have told you, "Manoel de Oliveira died."

You likely asked, "Who is Manoel de Oliveira?"

And even this friend may have had a problem articulating who this man was, why he mattered, what legacy he left behind.

Manoel de Oliveira was a Portuguese filmmaker. He was in fact, our oldest living working filmmaker; having acted in movies during Portugal's silent era, he directed a couple of features during the mid 20th century, before hitting his stride in the 1970s, at which point he started turning out features and documentaries at the rate of at least one per year. Without stopping. Our Twitterfriend Justine Smith contextualized it thusly: "Manoel de Oliveira began making movies in the silent era, he had a new film released just last year. Think about that."

de Oliveira often commented that filmmaking itself was the reason for his unusual longevity, and sprightly energy. And though this is reason enough to celebrate his legacy, it doesn't really speak to what that legacy might consist of. His movies are as difficult to summarize as they are to commodify (a Portuguese filmmaker whose finest works rarely screen domestically, never mind being easily available on line).

de Oliveira's movies often adapted books or plays (sometimes, as with Inquietude, within the same movie). de Oliveira's innate sense of experimentation and playfulness made for an unpredictable and lively cinema, yet just as often his willingness to let his source material's ideas speak for themselves made his movies overlong and talky. (Even Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his lengthy and enthusiastic consideration of de Oliveira's work, is quick to point out that not every movie is a masterpiece.)

But when they come together, de Oliveira's movies offer unique and vast pleasures. de Oliveira regular Luís Miguel Cintra going absolutely word-mad in not one, not two, but three straight takes of the Portuguese farce Mon Cas (before being dropkicked deep into Beckett and the Book of Job). Michel Piccoli beginning I'm Going Home as King Lear, and gracefully exiting the movie simply a tired old man. (There's usually a playful challenge implicit in de Oliveira's endings, a playful "so there" as his characters recede into the distance or exit the frame.) Or the lovely revelations through the camera in de Oliveira's late-career opus The Strange Case of Angelica, so gentle that it only dawns on you after that this 100-year-old filmmaker has embraced CGI and put it to better, more artful use than his younger contemporaries.

The cinema of Manoel de Oliveira is elusive in so many ways, its meanings subtle even when you can find his movies. His work is a rich vein of mystery that practically runs through the entire history of cinema. That his work is not so easily commodified (there's no Vertigo or Some Like It Hot that one can watch and consider oneself versed in his work) only adds to its mystery...and its appeal. Such a vast and mysterious body of work appears inexhaustible, and as sad as it is to lose such an esteemed and apparently eternal figure, the vastness and depth of his legacy is well worth celebrating. And there's even a new(-ish) de Oliveira movie to look forward to - his 1982 documentary Memories and Confessions has never been screened, and per his orders will only now be shown. Where and when, of course, is a mystery, for now, an open-ended question mark completely in keeping with the endings of his movies. To be continued.

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