Manoel De Oliveira
This preeminent Portuguese filmmaker began his career as an actor and documentary filmmaker in the 1920s and turned to fictional works in 1942. When his first feature, the brilliantly photographed children's film "Aniki-Bo" failed to find an audience, he retreated for close to 15 years before returning to moviemaking. By the time, Oliveira began to receive worldwide attention as a prominent director, he was already in his 60s. Thirty years later, he was still making accomplished films that captivated critics and audiences.
The son of a prominent businessman, Manoel de Oliveira spent part of his youth engaging in athletic pursuits. By the age of 17, he had dropped out of school and had begun working in the family business, all the while pursuing leisure time activities as varied as racing cars (which he continued to do until 1940) and the cinema. Strongly influenced by Soviet filmmakers as well as the French impressionists (especially Jean Vigo), German expressionists (such as Walther Ruttmann) and American pioneers like D.W. Griffith, Oliveira began his film career at age 19 when he worked on an uncompleted film about Portugal's participation in World War I. Over the next two years, he acted in "Fatima Milagrosa" (1928), directed by his acting teacher Rino Lupo and collaborated with painter Ventura Porfirio on another unrealized animated motion picture. Over the next three years, Oliveira worked on his first silent documentary, "Douro, Faima Fluvial/Hard Labor on the River Douro" (1931), establishing a pattern of working as writer, editor, producer and director.
Over the course of the 1930s, Oliveira devoted his energies to several abortive features and produced only a handful of forgettable documentaries (e.g., "Estautuas de Lisbon/Statues of Lisbon" 1932). He also had a substantial role in Portugal's premiere all-sound feature "A Cancao de Lisbon/Song of Lisbon" (1934). By the time the 40s rolled around, Oliveira was at work on his first feature, "Aniki-Bobo" (1942), which combined elements of French poetic realism with what came to be regarded as Italian neorealism. The film, however, proved unsuccessful in his homeland, partly due to its location shooting and its frank depiction of street urchins. (Several Portuguese critics deemed it immoral). Perhaps ironically, these qualities were exactly what drew praise from foreign critics. Nearly forty years later, partly from repeated airings on Portuguese television, "Aniki-Bobo" became one of the most popular films in the country.
After the devastating reception of "Aniki-Bobo", Oliveira retreated to the life of a gentleman farmer while not wholeheartedly abandoning scriptwriting. It took 14 years and a sojourn to Germany to study color techniques, however, before he was able to secure financing for his first color film "O Pintor e a Cidade/The Painter and the City" (1956), a documentary set in his birthplace of Oporto. By contrasting photographic shots of the city with the paintings of artist Antonio Cruz, Oliveira crafted what one critic called a "philosophical essay in film language about the behavior of the human being in a town." The filmmaker followed with the near silent "O Pao/Bread" (1959), which traced the production of loaves from the wheatfields through to the consumer.
1963 marked the beginning of Oliveira's worldwide acclaim. That year's superb "Acto da Primavera/The Passion of Jesus", ostensibly a documentary of a staging of a Passion Play that Oliveira framed in a political context. Some theorists have posited that "Acto da Primavera" coupled with the same year's short "A Caca/The Hunt", which centered on attempts by a hunting party to rescue on of its members who has fallen into a bog, as reflective of the director's views on heaven and hell. Certainly the former possesses a certain spiritual dimension while the latter was originally meant to be a discourse on violence (although censorship forced him to adopt a more hopeful resolution). The pair of films brought him further attention from outside his homeland (Oliveira was the subject of retrospectives at the 1964 Locarno Film Festival and at the Paris Cinematheque the following year) but also marked the beginning of an eight-year hiatus in filmmaking.
At the age of 63, Oliveira was asked to join a filmmaking cooperative comprised mostly of members of the New Portuguese cinema. He turned out what has come to be called his "Quartet of Frustrated Loves", which began with "O Passado e o Presente/Past and Present" (1971), a satirical look at marriage among the upper classes that many praised for its visual inventiveness (with a great debt to Bunuel) and aural wonders. "Benilde ou a Virgem Mae/Bernilde: Virgin and Mother" (1975) was based on a play by long-time associate Jose Regio that examined the predicament of a deeply religious young woman who mysteriously becomes pregnant. Oliveira stumbled in a major way with the third entry in his tetrology, "Amor de Perdicao/Ill-Fated Love" (1978) which was originally made as a four-part television presentation of Camilo Castello Branco's popular novel. Loosely inspired by "Romeo and Juliet" and unsuccessfully acted by amateurs, the production unfolded at a glacial pace and critics and audiences rejected it. It took the director four years to return to grace with what many consider one of his finest films, "Francesca" (1981). Adapted from a romance novel about an Englishwoman torn between Castello Branco and his friend Jose Augusto, "Francesca" contained highly imaginative, theatrical tableaux and literate dialogue. He concluded the quartet in 1992 with "O Dia do Desepero/The Day of Despair", an examination of the last years in the life of Castello Branco.
In between, Oliveira cast a backward glance and crafted the autobiographical "Memorias e Confissoes/Memories and Confessions" (1982), which after its completion he deemed was too personal to be released until after his death. Instead, he returned to the documentary form for "Lisboa Cultural/Cultural Lisbon" (1983) and "Nice a propos de Jean Vigo" (1984), which featured his eldest son in an examination of the city of Nice and its thriving Portuguese community. Also in 1983, Oliveira began working on his epic nearly seven-hour adaptation of Paul Claudel's 1929 verse drama "The Satin Slipper/Sapato de Cetim/Le Soulier de satin". Divided into four parts, this ambitious historical drama, shot on a $12 million dollar budget, inaugurated a new theme in the director's oeuvre, theatrical cinema. As he explained at the time, "Theater is the representation of life; cinema is the representation of life, not of theater. Theater and cinema are the same thing with different possibilities." Critics praised "The Satin Slipper" when it premiered at the 1985 Venice Film Festival, citing its visual splendor, humor and craftsmanship.
Building on those themes, Oliveira next filmed "Mon cas/My Case" (1986), another four-part piece that incorporated a one-act by Jose Regio performed three times, once with sound, another silently with a voice-over reading from Samuel Beckett and lastly with a reversed sound track. The fourth section drew on the biblical story of Job. Highly stylized, the film had little appeal beyond those interested in charting the director's career, Undaunted, the director tackled filmed opera in "Os Canibais/The Canibals" (1988), a triangular romance that contained fascinating tableaux but which left viewers a bit put off.
As the 90s progressed, Oliveira continued to work at a time when many of his contemporaries were either dead, too infirm to work or retired. The tireless director continued to make at least one film per year, some more successful than others. "The Valley of Abraham" (1993) was a cleverly conceived homage to Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" while "The Convent/O Convento" (1995) marked his first time using an International cast of "name" actors (in this case John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve). Stylistically, "The Convent" which was essentially the Faust tale recast with an academic, seemed more accessible than much of his other work, but it also was replete with his sparing use of camera movement and closeups. For some, his work leaned to the old-fashioned while to his devotees, it provided an intelligent and often humorous viewpoint. The cerebral chamber piece "Party" (1996) did little to win him new admirers but "Journey to the Beginning of the World" (1997) improved his profile, partly because his semi-autobiographical film featured the final screen performance of Marcello Mastroianni playing a thinly-veiled version of the director. Even after achieving this career high and approaching his 90th birthday, Oliveira continued to work, turning out the tripartite omnibus "Inquietude/Anxiety" (1998) and "A Carta/The Letter/La Lettre" (1999), a modern-day adaptation of "La Princess de Cleves", about a woman (the luminous Chiara Mastroianni) striving to maintain her "good name" by avoiding an affair with a pop singer. While there was something quaint and decidedly anachronistic about the main character's dilemma, the director managed to package the proceedings beautifully.