by Dena Santoro
“Have patience. The miracle of cinematography is in young hands, astonished hands, hands often inept, erring, paralyzed with routine. Patience!” (Le Film, June 4, 1917)
—Colette at the Movies pg. 25
The term “singular vision” is doubtless clichéd, except perhaps not as applied to Manoel de Oliveira, the world’s oldest living filmmaker, whose persistence and artistic inspiration have guided him throughout his career.
De Oliveira says filmmaking has kept him alive. It has served him very well, obviously, as he is still working. From Cineuropa, dateline September 4, 2014: “At 105 years old, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is beginning the shoot for his new film, “O Velho do Restelo” (“The Old Man from the Restelo”) today in Oporto [his hometown in Portugal].”
Also to wit, his latest short film, “The Old Man of Belem,” was premiered at both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals this September.
As the critic J. Hoberman wrote in Artforum International, “The most existential of filmmakers, Manoel de Oliveira has, for decades now, been making every movie as though it were his last.”
His canon currently includes more than 50 features and documentary films, with several others listed as in development on IMDB.
Think Globally, Seek Inspiration Locally
Here is a glimpse of de Oliveira’s first short film, released in 1931, and made when he was 23. “Douro, Faina Fluvial” (“Labor on the Douro River”), at just 18 minutes, is a dynamic chronicle of one day.
Born on December 11, 1908, Manoel de Oliveira began his career as both actor and director, but suffered early critical failure and stepped back. He worked as a farmer and managed his family’s lighting factory, marrying Maria Isabel Brandão de Meneses de Almeida Carvalhais, with whom he raised four children.
Further, during the authoritarian regime of António Salazar—prior to 1974’s Carnation Revolution—de Oliveira did not make many films. Between 1948 and 1955 he made no new work; his true productivity began that year at age 47. (His first and second features were separated by 30 years.) Even though de Oliveira enjoyed some success during his 50s and 60s, he only began full-time directorial work at age 73. His audience is global, even though some of his films, usually scripted in Portuguese or French, are not easy to find and sometimes lack English subtitles.
Evaluating the Work
De Oliveira has been the subject of several books—Randal Johnson’s Manoel de Oliveira, from the Contemporary Film Directors series; Bruno Roberti’s Italian language biography; and a French volume from Philippe Tancelin, Yann Lardeau, and Jacques Parsi—as well as a number of articles. The prolific critic Jonathan Rosenbaum penned a thorough inquiry of de Oliveira’s work in Film Comment, providing the novice with a roadmap. Notably, de Oliveira’s classic “Doomed Love” makes Rosenbaum’s famous Top 100 films, but Rosenbaum ’s 1000 Essentials list includes “Benilde ou a virgem-mae” (1974); “Doomed Love” (1978); “No, or the Vainglory of the Command” (1990); and “Inquietude” (1998).
As Charlotte Higgins wrote in The Guardian (May 13, 2010):
And while patience is an essential virtue for directors—years may pass before a project gets off the ground—few can say they have waited 64 years. De Oliveira’s “The Strange Case of Angelica,” which was premiered at the [Cannes] festival, was conceived in 1946, and he took it to script in 1952. De Oliveira recently tweaked the story to take in such issues as global warming, the economic crisis and environmental pollution.
The film’s eccentric vision defies categorisation. Two things lie at its heart, though: a painterly eye, and a meditative, almost elegiac feeling for the landscape of the river Douro, in Portugal, where it is set.
Of his fallow years, de Oliveira once said, “I had time for a long and profound reflection about the artistic nature of cinema, which transformed my previous certainties into new concepts between hesitations and doubt.” In other words, the imposed pause allowed for a deeper self-examination, which in turn influenced his artistic direction.
An Extraordinary Life
It’s astonishing to consider the growth de Oliveira has witnessed and been a part of, from silents to talkies to digital, a global revolution in a century. Manoel de Oliveira’s longevity as a filmmaker is a gift, but the greater gift is that his mind and body are still engaged. A passion for art or a passion for living alone is no guarantee of longevity.
By making the most of each moment, by continuing to value the ideas that haunted him for decades; by being open to innovative ideas; and by not bowing to pressure, De Oliveira has cultivated the innate wisdom that was evident early on, but that has been refined by astonishing decades of continued work.
The celebrated French author Colette, born in 1873, was involved with cinema at its birth, penning dozens of film reviews and some film scenarios. Of the form, she wrote, “I am only now beginning to study—reproaching myself for leaving it until so late in the cinematic day—what a cinematic vocation might be, its true essence, its goal and its reward when this goal and this reward become differentiated from rapacity.” (Colette at the Movies)
De Oliveira has captured this essence, ever more apparent in his ninth decade of cinematic vision.
Dena Santoro is a writer and editor who lives in NYC. She can be found on Facebook and at http://zhsquared.com/.
Homepage photo courtesy Grand Écran