“Life is a moment which is always past, which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the genius of artistic creation to attempt to retain life. This is the function of literature, of painting, of sculpture, which preserve the passing life. Not its historic dimension, but the ephemeral dimension of things which flow like the water of a river. The place is the same, but the water isn’t.”
— Manoel de Oliveira, at 90
It is something of an irony that Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who passed away at the age of 106 – a full life and a half – on Friday in Porto spoke frequently about the ephemerality of life. To cinephiles who have celebrated and cheered for him during each of his post-centenary birthdays, it seemed that Oliveira will be around forever, making the kind of films he makes, free not just from the ruthless exigencies of commerce, but also the passive-aggressive demands of film festivals, academia and cultural fads at large. Even the Venice Film Festival felt obliged to give him their lifetime achievement award a second time in 2004, having underestimated the late bloomer’s career plans the first time around in 1985.
To be sure, Oliveira’s vast body of work, the bulk of which was made after the filmmaker turned 70, despite regular critical acclaim, hardly fostered undying allegiance in his already niche audience. He was a thorough modernist, yet worked consistently with classical texts and themes devoid of political polemic or cultural commentary favoured by the academic establishment. He was at the vanguard of cinematic experimentation, but was so religiously bound to the written word as to frustrate “Pure Cinema” evangelists. The typical Oliveira shot is static, with the fixed camera squarely filming well-costumed actors flatly spouting dialogue in an anti-realistic, declamatory fashion. One recalls old Tamil films where actors, burdened as they were by the tradition of theatre, spoke looking at the camera than at each other.
Instead of shunning theatre for the critically venerated idea of film as a pure form, Oliveira’s cinema embraces and even subordinates its filmic elements to it. For the filmmaker, there is no real need for cinema to consciously distinguish itself from theatre, for its very nature sets it apart from the latter. Theatre is always material, contingent on actors and décor, while a movie, once filmed, is fixed and ethereal with its bodiless phantom actors. Theatre, cinema and reality form a triad in Oliveira’s films, each one feeding constantly into and illuminating the other two. Like Michel Piccoli in I’m Going Home (2001), who comes to terms with his old age only through the conventions of the stage, Oliveira believes that it is theater that helps us better understand reality.
So too with cinema, which captures fugitive moments of life and preserves it for eternity in order that we have a clearer view of it. Nowhere is this preservative quality of the moving image more piercingly and movingly portrayed than in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), one of Oliveira’s last films and one of the greatest films of this century. Like so many of the director’s films, Angelica is a story of unfulfilled love and thwarted desire, in which Isaac the photographer (played by Oliveira’s grandson and regular collaborator Ricardo Trêpa) falls in love with the image of a dead girl he has photographed. Through Isaac’s attempts at bringing to life this girl through the imaginings of his art, the film becomes an ode to the redemptive quality of cinema in which impressions, people and memories long dead are resurrected through the magic of the medium.
Art and life: the two co-ordinate poles between which Oliveira’s cinema resides and oscillates. Characters in Oliveira’s films yearn that the shortcomings of life be dissolved in the perfection of art, while art harshly brings them back to bitter the quotidian reality around them. These romantics always want to be somewhere else – some other time, some other place, some other medium. Perhaps that is why these films routinely straddle multiple historical timelines that often meld into each other such that the contemporary seamlessly cohabits with the classical, the modern with the medieval. Oliveira’s is a cinema of longing, of this vain desire to be ‘somewhere else’, of the uniquely Portuguese feeling of Saudade, or what he himself calls, the nostalgia for the future.
(For The Hindu)