Manoel de Oliveira Tribute: Larger than life

Soha Elsirgany, Friday 27 Nov 2015

This year’s European Film Panorama pays tribute to the late Portuguese director and screenwriter Manoel de Oliveira, with four films spanning across 9 decades in his career

Manoel De Oliveira Tribute

A prolific figure in international cinema, Manoel de Oliveira was born in 1908 and died in April 2015 aged 106, making him the oldest active filmmaker at the time of his death, and one of the few directors to have worked from the silent film era through to the digital age.

This year's Panorama of the European Film -- which runs between 25 November and 5 December in Egypt -- has selected four films from Oliveira's extensive œuvre, each demonstrating different stages from De Oliveira’s career and reflecting his different styles: Aniki Bobo, Labour on the Duoro River, Abraham’s Valley, and A Voyage to the Beginning of the World.

The short documentary Labour on the Duoro River, also referred to as Duoro, was his first film, produced in 1931.

A documentary about de Oliveira’s hometown Porto, the silent black and white short stands as a fine and timelessly fresh piece of storytelling based purely on images and music.

Oliveira was inspired by Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a City, belonging to a short-lived genre in the 1920s and 1930s called city symphony film in which impressions of a place and its events are edited to create a dynamic portrait-like documentary without a written script.

Orchestral music fills the place of a character to steer emotions in relation to the image and shape a dramatic narrative.

After Duoro, Oliveira made a number of short documentaries of the same sort, but it would be over a decade before Oliveira would write and direct Aniki Bobo, his first feature, in 1942.

Aniki Bobo runs for 68 minutes and is largely cast with children from Porto. The story plays as a miniature romantic drama, centring around two young boys competing for the love of a girl.

In Aniki Bobo, the themes of masculinity, guilt, and jealousy are as relevant to children as they are to adults.

Though the film passed almost ignored and was received coldly upon its release, today it stands as arguably the most important Portuguese film of its time.

His second feature Acto do Primavera was made in 1963, almost 21 years after Aniki Bobo.

Still from Labour on the Duoro River (Photo: Courrtesy of Zawya)

Voyage to the Beginning of the World
Still from Voyage to the Beginning of the World (Photo: Courrtesy of Zawya)

Starting in 1990, Olivera consistently produced one film per year.

During this most productive phase he made Abraham’s Valley in 1993, based on the literary work by Agustina Bessa-Luis, a prominent Portuguese writer.

This was one of his numerous collaborations with Bessa-Luis, with films including The Convent, The Party and The Uncertainty Principle also based on her literary works.

In fact, Oliveira asked Bessa-Luis to write Abraham’s Valley as a Portuguese adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, which he originally wanted to film but was stopped from doing so by production limitations.

Broad lines from Flaubert’s novel form the skeletal plot in Abraham’s Valley and direct references to the text are established early on in the film with a close up shot on the book.

The central character Ema is based on the similar Emma in Madame Bovary, who also marries a doctor she does not love and ends up having a number of affairs.

In the film Ema is even nicknamed ‘Little Bovary’ though she adamantly rejects it.

She is indeed quite different from Flaubert’s Emma, being placed in a totally different context, and this moment presents a chance to better understand Oliveria’s work.

Here Oliveira both acknowledges the book’s strong thematic presence in his film, but through his character he challenges this idea, pointing out how he has strayed from Flaubert’s depiction of Emma and has become his own Ema who rebels against her original version.

The film is a lengthy 3 hours and 23 minutes (not his longest, with The Satin Slipper running for 7 hours), and with long scenes and absence of action, might render it inaccessible to an Egyptian audience, or any audience unfamiliar with Oliveira’s language.

For the sake of comparison, Abraham’s Valley was made in the year when America’s box office hits were Jurassic Park, Mrs Doubtfire, and The Fugitive, all of which follow a basic formula and average frame rate matching the speed of life at the time.

In that context, Oliveira’s work stands against the tide, dubbed a Classical Modernist, his language and pace are his own, unaffected by what the cinematic world is up to in terms of form and technique.

Using formal, mostly static long shots paired with a narrator, watching Abraham’s Valley is almost like a book being read and played out.

In his biographical book titled Manoel de Oliveira, Randal Johnson describes the director's technique to have “the continued centrality of language and the diminished role of action."

Johnson continues to explain how the narration is what moves the film forward, not the actions, and it is often redundant or prophetic, while at other times contradictory to what is happening on the screen.

It is this play with the relationship between text and image that Oliveria seems most interested in achieving.

We do not learn much about Ema through her actions, but rather through the narration and through conversations over the passing years that reveal how she has changed.

With themes of unfulfilled love, beauty, power, the conversations that take place between the characters in Abraham’s Valley are distinctly poetic, formally staged, but always revealing of their characters, and more so, of Oliveira’s own philosophies and reflections.

Aniki bobo
Still from Aniki Bobo (Photo: Courrtesy of Zawya)

In 1997, Oliveira directed A Voyage to the Beginning of the World. A director named Manoel is on a road trip in Portugal with three actors, Afonso, Judite and Duarte.

The main cause of the trip is to find Afonso’s Portuguese relatives and reconnect him to his roots after his migrant father made a life for himself in France. But the journey offers a trip down memory lane for Manoel also, as they make stops to visit places from his childhood, taking up part the first half of the film.

In one scene Judite tells Manoel, “Your saudade is worse than that of Afonso,” mocking how his nostalgia overshadows the story Afonso.

Throughout the film there is comparison and contrast between the childhood Manoel had in these lands, and the life Afonso never experienced, but would have belonged to his father.

Voyage to the Beginning of the World is more technically and thematically accessible than Abraham’s Valley. Though it also exhibits the distinct style in which Oliveria meditates on language, and puts emphasis on places.

Often the camera would be fixed on a scene and linger there even after the actors have walked in and out of the frame.

When the camera isn’t on the actors’ conversations in the car, we are often treated to long tracking shots of the passing landscape from the side windows or the road beneath the car.

This technique though formal, feels relaxed, playing out like a travel journal that invites the viewer along in the voyage.

With intriguing conversations that touch upon aging, memory, personal history (recurring themes in Oliveira’s films) the film draws on two real stories.

The locations on the road are real places from Oliveira’s childhood, including his Jesuit school, the abandoned Grand Hotel, and most significantly the statue of Pedro Macau, a figure representing a man on one knee which used to carry a log over his head before it got destroyed. The figure is a symbol of a human condition, of an exiled man who cannot put the log down. As such, A Voyage to the Beginning of the World becomes a partial autobiography for the director.

As for Afonso, played by Jean-Yves Gautier, his story is based on that of Yves Afonso, a French actor who met his long lost aunt while filming in Portugal.

This film also brings together two of Oliveira’s most frequent actors, Leonor Silveira playing Judite, who acted in 19 of his films, and Diogo Dória as Duarte, who appears in 14.

Both star in Abraham’s Valley, in which Luís Miguel Cintra, who is in 18 Oliveira films, and Ricardo Trepa who is in 19, join them.

Another autobiographical film was Porto Da Minha Infância in 2001.

Panorama’s selection of Oliveira’s films is but an introductory sample from his rich oevre. He may not be for everyone, it takes a cinephile to appreciate his approach and the layers in his work, but Oliveira’s films are a category of his own worth study.

Still from Abraham's Valley (Photo: Courrtesy of Zawya)

Aniki Bobo and Duoro: Wednesday 25 Nov, 1pm at Zawya.
Abrahams Valley: Friday 27 Nov, 1pm at Zawya.
A Voyage to the Beginning of the World: Sunday 29 Nov, 6:45pm at the Italian Institute

Zawya: (Odeon Cinema) 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Downtown, Cairo
Italian Institute: 3 El Sheikh El Marsafy St., Zamalek, Cairo

Check Panorama's prohramme here and Ahram Online recommendations here.

Ahram Online is the main media sponsor of The Panorama of the European Film and of Zawya.

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