Past and Present (1972, Manoel de Oliveira)

The earliest Oliveira movie I’ve seen by three decades – and he was making movies three decades earlier than this. That would explain why this already feels like the work of an old master, even though I was considering it “early Oliveira.” The camera’s not as exactingly positioned as in Resnais films like Melo and Love Unto Death, but it has a similar feeling to those, the masterful European period dramas that seem at time to be filmed plays but with a mysterious sense that there’s always something more going on.

The Silent Gardener:

According to the wikipedia, Oliveira fell afoul of the government in the mid-60’s, accused of surrealism, then was silent for years until this film’s release. More: “With its lyrical surrealism and farcical situations, the film was a shift from his earlier work about lower class people. Based on a play by Joao Cesar Monteiro . . . Past and Present was the first of what has become known as Oliveira’s “Tetralogy of frustrated loves”. It was followed by Benilde or the Virgin Mother, Doomed Love and Francisca. Each of these films share the theme of unfulfilled love, the backdrop of a repressive society, and the beginning of Oliveira’s unique cinematic style.” It’s got that mannered surrealism typical of Bunuel’s late career – you can see how the two filmmakers got tangled together. Couldn’t tell if Oliveira was abusing the film’s soundtrack in various ways or (most likely) if the broadcast source of my video copy was a bit wonky. Second movie I’ve seen recently to use music by Mendelssohn. There’s not much written about the film online – even my most reliable Oliveira-advocate Rosenbaum had not seen this one, as of his writings circa Christopher Columbus, The Enigma.

First scene is a gathering of friends attending the funeral of Vanda’s ex-husband Ricardo. She abuses current husband Firmino, forbids him from attending. I don’t think Ricardo has just died – this is “the burial of his remains” two years later? “A year after his death, she married Firmino, and a year later, she fell in love with the former husband. An unhealthy passion for the deceased husband, the same that bothered her in life, and, at the same time, what an anger for poor Firmino!”

Firmino with hateful wife Vanda:

Also at the party: Fernando (sideburns, glasses) and Noemia (light hair, pulled back), a divorced couple with a better, more loving relationship than when they were married. Honorio (balding) and Angelica (reddish hair) are married, but slightly-shaggy, Depardieu-looking Mauricio is in love with Angelica. And finally there’s Daniel, the deceased Ricardo’s identical twin brother. Firmino is caught considering stabbing his wife to death, but holds back.

A year later, Firmino writes a suicide note then leaps from the window (comically avoiding being caught by the silent gardener). It takes him days to die, days his wife Vanda spends cursing his name and ordering a coffin – and the friends all gather at the house again. Angelica has been living with Mauricio, but he tells her to return to her husband (“This adultery will make you appreciate more the virtues of fidelity, just as a trip abroad reveals the sweetness of the homeland”) because he’s now in love with Noemia.

Cheaters Mauricio and Angelica:

Moments before her husband dies, Daniel reveals to Vanda that he’s really Ricardo, that the brothers had swapped clothes before the fatal car accident and he swapped his wedding ring afterwards.

“Vanda, your husband is dead”
L-R: Noemia (Manuela de Freitas of some Joao Cesar Monteiro films), Honorio (Duarte de Almeida of Magic Mirror, The Convent), Fernando, Angelica.

Another year – A judge has declared that Vanda and Ricardo are still married, so she’s now in love with the dead Firmino. Angelica is back with Mauricio and getting dumped again.

Ricardo spies Vanda hanging pictures of deceased Firmino around the house:


A friend is getting married, so the friends gather again, and the movie ends with the exchanging of wedding vows and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.