A centennial retrospective of an artist’s work is not unusual. That the artist is still living at the time is fairly unusual. But it’s truly rare for the celebrated artist to be living, working in full swing and an acknowledged master of his art—as is Manoel de Oliveira, the great Portuguese film director, whose career began in the late silent era, and who will be 100 on Dec. 12.
Pacific Film Archive will begin an Oliveira retrospective of 19 features and four shorts (including his first film from 1931, the silent short Douro, Working River) of his 50-some films, this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997), with Marcello Mastroianni (in his last film appearance) as Oliveira (while Oliveira plays Mastroianni’s driver).
On Sunday at 5 p.m. his first feature, Aniki-Bobo (1942), will be shown with a short from 1963, The Hunt. Next Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. will see Oliveira’s second feature, Rite of Spring (1963), the documentary-like reenactment of a small town’s passion play and the first of various films Oliveira based on theater and, later, novels.
Oliveira madeonly a few short documentaries in the 20 years between features, in great part due to his undisguised opposition to the Salazar “Estado Novo” dictatorship (1932–74), based more on humanistic than political concerns.
His career took off with his third feature, the Buñuelian The Past and the Present (1972), inaugurating a tetralogy of “frustrated love,” with his first great masterpiece (released in his 70th year), Doomed Love (1978) and later the stunning Francisca (1981), the from the former work, the other from the life of 19th century Portuguese novelist Camilo Castel Branco.
“What other great filmmaker made his masterpiece after his 80th birthday?” asked director Fernando Lopes, referring to Oliveira’s Abraham’s Valley (1993, based in part on Madame Bovary, which will end the retrospective on Sept. 28), when he accompanied Oliveira to the 1994 San Francisco International Film Festival to receive the Kurosawa Award.
Since that time, Oliveira has made over half his output, at least a film a year, like A Talking Picture (from 2003, perhaps
a response to 9/11, with Catherine Deneuve, Irene Pappas and John Malkovitch) and Belle Toujours (updating Buñuel’s story, nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2006, with Michel Piccoli and Bulle Ogier).
An acting student who was inspired at 20 to direct by Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City, and later by Soviet film montage, Oliveira created his own signature style, “palimpsestic ... a reflective and self-reflexive discourse” (Randal Johnson), unfolds as his career continues to progress.
This true stylization, which eschews naturalism for a peculiar kind of direct address (“Each film must be finished by the spectators”), is his own interpretation (as Fernando Lopes put it) of Portugal’s national sentiment: that elusive thing, “saudade.” Often translated as nostalgia, saudade may be more a sense of what did happen—or could have happened—as recollected in the present and projected into the future.
Oliveira recently placed the genesis of his sensibilities as an artist working in film, “the synthesis of all art forms,” in the reflections he made when he was sidelined from film and managing his family’s vineyards, on “the simplicity of old Greek tragedies, the realism of the Renaissance.”