Manoel de Oliveira celebrates his centenary this month with a royal workup at BAM’s Cinématek—their tribute to the Portuguese master stretches over three weeks (March 7-30) and includes 18 features and a program of shorts. Though he's largely unknown outside of true cinematic circles here (and probably elsewhere), his slight, but moving I’m Going Home (screening in the series) and the staid eccentric A Talking Picture (not screening, but available on DVD) are about the only films in his ever-growing filmography to receive small-scale U.S. distribution pushes, even if retrospectives of his work are ever more common. He’s been cranking out films at a rapid pace through the 1990s and 2000s—about a film a year, and the BAM series focuses on the highlights of this period, while dipping back into the sixties and seventies to round up his rare early works (his first feature, 1942s Aniki Bóbó screens this evening).
You’ll read (or will have read) that Oliveira’s been making films since the silent period, and that he’s the world’s oldest living filmmaker, but what’s interesting about Oliveira is not his longevity or productivity per se, but how those secondary characteristics of his career have played out into a tenacious, tough bunch of films that reverberate along certain fixed axes—art, religion, history, culture—that truly define his art. He’s been around for a long time, and this affords him a unique perspective on our world and ways of life. When his filmmaking career ends (not for another few decades, I hope), Oliveira will be remembered as the most rigorous cinematic chronicler of that dying beast we call Western Civilization (he literally murders it in A Talking Picture). With a wink and a sad smile he’s surveyed our cultural landscape, ferreted out the worthy and worthless bits, and captured the ways life has changed around him on film for nearly eighty years.
I’ve only seen about a dozen of his features (nine of which BAM is screening), so there are plenty of discoveries I’m hoping to make over the next few weeks (I’m told Abraham’s Valley is terrific), but if I could implore anyone reading this to see just one film in the series, make it Inquietude, my favorite of the bunch. Broken into three segments, each of which flows fluidly from one to the next, it’s a broad commentary on art, artmaking and myth that implicates the viewer in its mechanisms by a neat, inviting formal trick. It’s also the most singularly beautiful of the films of his I’ve seen, high praise for a warmly glowing cinema that seems constantly lit from within. If you can see a second, make it Doomed Love, his lengthy adaptation of an epic swooning romance placed against artificial sets and rendered via performances that make Bresson’s models look traditionally expressive. It’s not an easy sit, but is rewarding nonetheless—with its extensive use of titles it feels nearly as though one’s read the source novel by the time it's over (this is the kind of film for which one knows instantly their degree of tolerance). Seeing a third? I like The Uncertainty Principle—the title invokes physics, but the film is more of an odd little thriller—quite a bit as well…
Those into self-referential cinema (and completists) should check out Oliveira's "Tetraology of Frustrated Love" films, Pasado e presente (more naturalistic and recalling Buñuel's late comedies, but definitely transitional), Benilde, or The Virgin Mother, Doomed Love, and Francisca. Benilde's the turning point in his career, basically a filmed play about a virgin mother that opens and closes with the theatrical artifice unpacked—Oliveira leads us to and away from his characters via tracking shots through the soundstage surrounding his sets. The meat of Benilde feels like an intensely Ibsen-esque experience, but constant references to the empty space off-screen highlight the nature of a film as fake. The following two titles in the Tetralogy expand and deepen this same exploration. By the time the series is finished, you’ll have witnessed a complete cinematic metamorphosis.
For everyone who finds this stuff literate, urbane, and slyly witty (see the club sequences in The Uncertainty Principle or John Malkovich's performances in The Convent and A Talking Picture), there will be plenty who will exit theaters dulled by boredom (the thankfully absent The Fifth Empire) or feel as though they’ve witnessed some of the most hermetically sealed cinema going (his seemingly marathon dialogues for two don’t always play like the intellectual fencing matches they were intended to be). His is a cinema that somehow seems both airless and relevant, though to his detractors, this is a point that will certainly be up for debate. I’m a true believer but on occasion I’ve questioned the place of puzzling (usually intentionally so) films like these in the world. Fun, frustrating, serious, suffocating—whatever mode he’s in, Oliveira is never anything but himself, and at 100 years of age he seems absolutely unstoppable.
For the full schedule, click here.