Manoel de Oliveira x 2
Whether Oliveira will appeal to fans of the chatty fashion of Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino is improbable, even though his scripts share their hefty word count. There’s no trumped up “attitude” in his work, no menace or threat lodged within barbed quips. But not one of those recent directors possess the patience to examine and capture the pure spirit of evil as Oliveira did in The Convent (1995), a quiet horror picture which subverts and ridicules flabby genre conventions. It’s a film that lulls poseurs to sleep.
New to DVD, Oliveira’s Talking Picture (2003) is all that the title implies, some ninety-minutes of discussion as a university professor (Leonor Silveira) takes her young daughter on a cruise of ports in the Mediterranean. It’s her scheme to witness and experience the places that she’s been teaching out of text books—the ruins of ancient civilizations—while relating tales of historic cultures and wars and rulers to the open and inquisitive mind of her eight-year-old.
When you begin to imagine that Oliveira is guilelessly documenting a talkative character without employing formal direction, he segues into an international discourse between the ship’s captain (John Malkovich) and three passengers (Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli and Irene Papas), in a distinctively different and contemporary tone that uses nationalities and sexes as metaphors for (male) American imperialism and (female) European creativity. That all of these talkers miraculously understand one another despite language barriers isn’t a frivolous convenience, but a means to explore a shared idealism regarding past cultures and uncertain futures. Filmed in 2003, Talking Picture is consciously set in July of 2001, two months prior to the terrorist attacks in America and a sly eulogy to old-world European romanticism and whatever remained of its innocence after World War II.
As part of Oliveira’s small stock company of players, Malkovich, Deneuve and Papas have taken lead and supporting roles at scale pay throughout the last decade, thereby assuring his prospective backers a degree of marketability. But his personal favorite has been the Portuguese actress Leonor Silveira. She gave an excellent performance as the Bovary character in Abraham’s Valley (1993), and provided a wry comic counterpoint to Marcello Mastroianni in Voyage to the Beginning of the World and Malkovich in The Convent. In Talking Picture she’s the teacher, a figurative character who’s intelligent without being imperiously intellectual, well versed in the past but generally clueless about the present, whether debating on saving a small dog from falling into the ocean or denying the captain’s invitation to dinner. She represents present-day Europe—bruised, ambiguous, nervously polite, and whose roots have become frayed strings attached to archaic myths and legends.
Meanwhile, another Oliveira film is making the rounds on the Sundance Channel: Porto of My Childhood (2001). Originally released in Argentina at 92-minutes, it’s was cut by more than half an hour for its European release, and that’s the version Sundance is showing. Blending documentary footage with feature film clips and dramatic reenactments, the director looks back on his childhood and his early attempts at filmmaking. At sixty minutes, however, I’m not sure if a proper evaluation is possible. While ‘any Oliveira is better than none’ prevails for some, viewers who aren’t familiar with his work may lose interest within seconds.