“A terrible word is the NON”

A film with a stagy, heightened atmosphere in which you plainly see things happening though you somehow come to believe that these things are not happening. It’s a feeling I’ve had before with Oliveira, and with some of my favorites by Ruiz, Bunuel and Resnais, a slippery strangeness which I suppose most critics call surrealism.

Obvious predecessor to A Talking Picture, a movie full of narrated history lessons ending with a moment of violence, history’s revenge on the present. Portuguese soldiers on a troop truck, out defending the colonies, chat about politics. Lt. Cabrita (Luis Miguel Cintra, scary uncle in Pedro Costa’s O Sangue) tells them stories of their country’s past defeats, which are played out for us in full costume using the same actors as in the truck.

Two of my fave soldiers: at left is Manuel, Diogo Doria of Manoel on the Island of Wonders

Flashback, B.C. 130’s: Viriato, a successful defender of Portugal (then Lusitania) against the Romans, an icon of Portuguese independence, killed by his own Roman-bribed men while he slept.

Flashback, early 1470’s: Portugal fights Spain on two fronts. King Afonso V is defeated in a chaotic battle, while his son Prince John fought and won a battle that was apparently tactically brilliant but seemed strange to me. So, “There were neither victors nor vanquished.” Symbol of the battle was “The Mangled Man, who, in his chivalrous ardour, refuses to let the nation’s symbol fall” – a flag-bearer who kept holding the flag after having both hands cut off by the enemy. “King Afonso V’s image is belittled compared to The Mangled Man’s, whose courage the king himself didn’t deserve.”

Flashback, late 1470’s: John of the previous battle is now king, and his son Afonso is married to daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, so the children would have united the Iberian kingdoms, had Afonso not died during a horse race. Zodiac-like, this episode adds up the details of the suspicious/tragic event without drawing clear conclusions.

Time out for Cabrita to speak of Portugal’s discoveries and art, how they are more meaningful than any military achievements. This features a song, baby angels, much nudity, and Leonor Silveira.

Flashback, 1578, Alcazar-Quibir, the War of the Three Kings, a disastrous battle fought in northern Morocco. Cintra/Cabrita plays Alexandre Moreira, head of the adventurers’ regiment, who attacked first, to no avail. Three kings were killed, the nobility slaughtered, the army defeated, and Portugal was taken over by the Spanish government for the next sixty years.


The next day, out on patrol, they’re caught in Portugal’s latest military defeat – Cabrita is shot, taken to a military hospital populated by mutilated men. He dies in the hospital on April 25, 1974, the day of the Carnation Revolution which ended the colonial war.

Acquarello: “By juxtaposing history-based fiction with historical non-fiction, Oliveira illustrates the process of mythologization, where history becomes refracted and idealized in times of crisis and upheaval. However, rather than engendering a romanticism for the past glory, Oliveira dismantles the myth of conquest, reframing history as an elusive (and delusive) quest for fleeting victories and unsustainable empires.”

Oliveira quoted and took inspiration from Portuguese poet Camoes and his Lusiades. When asked to think back on the film: “The NON. . . you don’t have to go back, because the NON goes forward many years, therefore we are late compared to the NON.”

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.

“Commerce shuns a sentimental accountant”

I don’t know what to expect from an Oliveira movie. This one is only an hour long, but not because it’s in any great hurry to tell its story, a fairly simple one which moves at a leisurely pace. Definitely a well-made film, with a respectable look to it, not a work of madcap genius, not tired or haphazard. Mildly enjoyable throughout, then at the end I’m not sure what it all meant.
Adapted from a story by famous novelist Eça de Queirós but set in modern day, so there’s a scene at a literary society with a bust of the author among other displays of his work. Narrated by the lead character to a stranger on a train, played by Leonor Silveira, star of A Talking Picture.

Macario (Ricardo Trepa, the bartender who chats with Piccoli in Belle Toujours) is an accountant for his uncle, sees beautiful Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein of Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon) across the street and falls in love. Conspires to marry her, but his uncle will have none of it, so he sets out on his own, makes a small fortune working in Cape Verde then returns, only to lose it all by vouching for a friend who leaves town with another man’s wife. So he’s about to go back to Cape Verde but his uncle decides to take him back, says he can marry the girl. So they go out ring shopping, she is caught stealing a ring, he tells her to go away, roll credits. In an earlier scene, he lost a poker chip (during a poetry reading by Luis Miguel Cintra, who played the malignant uncle in Pedro Costa’s O Sangue, as himself) which rolled towards Luisa and disappeared, so he must realize she’s a habitual thief. Still, it’s an odd little story.

Trepa and Silveira:

J. Reichert

[The story] occupies the filmmaker’s by-now familiar nether-Lisbon, in which lives are lived simultaneously in 1609, 1909, and 2009. Oliveira’s a filmmaker at which the adjective urbane could be lobbed equally as praise or slight depending on your tolerance for his scarily coherent (especially of late) body of work. …If this tale weren’t so endearing and well told, it’d be more akin to one of those lengthy jokes told by aged uncles lacking in point or punchline.

Luis Miguel Cintra:

NY Times searches for clues:

As his story begins, the landscape outside the train window is snow covered; by the time it ends, it is green. Other tiny mysteries deepen the film’s enigmatic, gently surreal mood. … Macário encounters a strange, agitated man looking for his hat, left at the spot where Macário is standing. Periodically the movie returns to the same long shot of Lisbon but always filmed in a different light. At various points chimes ring from a tower whose clock has no hands. Everything is framed. Macário’s story is framed by the train trip. His dream girl, a full-lipped sensual beauty whose ash-blond hair tumbles over one eye, is glimpsed while standing at a window, seen through another window, waving a fringed Chinese fan. Even when she retreats behind a thin curtain, her silhouette is visible. Behind her is a framed portrait. Art not only seems to watch over life but to preserve it.

A blond-haired girl:

The DVD holds a press conference with the director and lead actors which is longer than the movie itself… might watch that another day.

“It’s in my style as homage to Bunuel’s style which is very different.”

Very spare, a couple talky dialogue scenes but mostly quiet, with pillow shots of Paris at night between scenes. Opening titles at the symphony, Husson spies Severine, out to the street, to a bar. Her hotel, a near miss. Back to the bar, Husson confesses what’s on his mind to the bartender – this scene must contain over half the dialogue of the film. Another chance meeting on the street, an invitation to dinner. At dinner Severine wants to know one thing, but Husson plays around, doesn’t tell her. She storms out. A chicken! He pays the servers from her forgotten purse, they clean up after he has left.

Piccoli (right) with the director’s grandson Ricardo Trêpa

Bulle Ogier also acted in Bunuel’s Discreet Charm

Piccoli, reprising his Belle De Jour role, was in a pile of other Bunuel films

N.D. Carlson of Cineaste has a compelling explanation for every part of the film: why it works and what it means… a wonderful analysis.

Sam, as usual, sees something I don’t see, even when I’m seeing what he saw, since it was his favorite narrative film of the year.

M. Dargis calls it “an act of critical violence.”

J. Rosenbaum calls it a “sequel–or tribute, or speculative footnote … more about class and less about sexual desire”

M. Piccoli: “Very often, cinema is indecent. What characterizes Manoel de Oliveira and Bunuel is their reserve. But don’t get me wrong: this reserve allows them to explore the most secret gardens of our existence. They are very modest but very immodest when it comes to shaking the imagination of the audience.”


So I’ve shown Katy two post-9/11 movies with downer endings in a row, and now I realize that I was about to show her a third. Unintentional, but can’t be a coincidence. Current theory is that 9/11 hit in the middle of my exploding cinephilia and I was angry that nobody wanted to talk about it in film, so the few films that dared to discuss it stuck in my mind… and it’s been about five years since I’ve seen ’em, the perfect amount of time to watch them again? Does that make sense?

Malkovich is still deliciously distracting as the captain. I’d forgotten how BUNUELIAN the whole thing seems. From one ancient landmark to another, having slightly unreal meetings and conversations with people along the way, then a huge narrative jump and we’re at dinner with the captain and his famous friends, then another dinner conversation, this time with the mother and child, Malkovich standing the whole time, a song in Greek, then terrorist attack!

A very unusual movie. I kinda love it, but never quite knew what to make of it. I remember this M. Dargis piece:

As the two stop at ports from France to Turkey, the film takes the shape of a genial history lesson, one that grows progressively darker when you realize the message Mr. Oliveira has been delivering alongside all the seemingly benign tourist shots. The film begins, rather prophetically, with the image of people waving goodbye. … As they stand in the shadow of the Acropolis, Maria Joana wonders, “What did people do here?” Her mother replies, “They worshipped their gods.” In a sense, who those gods were and what they meant is at the center of “A Talking Picture,” which takes the measure of Western civilization for good and for ill. Although the mother-and-daughter exchanges purposely recall the discourses that once echoed throughout the Acropolis, their sightseeing also has the flavor of everyday life. … The metaphor of privileged tourists blithely afloat on a luxury ship – and embarked on a circle tour of that crime scene known as Europe and its colonial-era environs, no less – is at once blunt and brilliant. In both its intellectual reach and the elegant simplicity of its form, “A Talking Picture” bears resemblance to Andrei Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” … this is the only film I can think of that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has so directly addressed the war on liberal democracies. Maybe it takes an angry old man who can cede the sins of the West without also sacrificing its ideals.

N. Vera:

On one hand it’s a young girl’s education on the world and its ways; on the other it’s a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.

France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd–or maybe not–that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)–who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.

What’s missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt’s monuments are shown and discussed, they’re discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it’s from the Mid-East–Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship’s officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture’s startling response.

In an article by Z. Campbell, he says the film “is often if not exclusively interpreted as a conservative lament,” but he praises Oliveira’s other works and says “This is an artist concerned with, among other things, the representation of unrepresentable experiences the source of which exists in some unspoken spaces of social structure (hospitality, companionship, family ties, tradition).”

The mother, Leonor Silveira, has appeared in just about every Oliveira film I’ve heard of. Captain Malkovich will be in the next movies by the Coens and Clint Eastwood and also a thriller about vampire mutants. French entrepreneur Catherine Deneuve was in a few Raoul Ruiz movies I’ve gotta see. Greek singer/actress Irene Papas starred in Costa-Gavras’ Z and previously The Guns of Navarone. Italian model Stefania Sandrelli was in a bunch of Bertolucci movies including a starring role in The Conformist.

The box art takes the one looking-into-camera close-up of Leonor Silveira and nests it inside the one shot where she is dwarfed by the monuments she visits. A nice idea, but then of course it’s cluttered up with titles and floating heads of the other stars.

Second half of shorts listing from Cannes 60th anniv. celebration (first half is here):

It’s A Dream by Tsai Ming-liang

Occupations by a hatchet-wielding Lars Von Trier

The Gift, more weirdness by Raoul Ruiz

The Cinema Around The Corner, happy reminiscing by Claude Lelouch

First Kiss, pretty but obvious, by Gus Van Sant.

Cinema Erotique, a funny gag by Roman Polanksi with one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s large-faced actors.

No Translation Needed, almost too bizarre to be considered self-indulgent, first Michael Cimino movie since 1996.

At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World by and starring David Cronenberg, one of his funniest and most disturbing movies.

I Travelled 9,000 km To Give It To You by Wong Kar-Wai.

Where Is My Romeo? – Abbas Kiarostami films women crying at a movie.

The Last Dating Show, funny joke on dating and racial tension by Bille August.

Awkward featuring Elia Suleiman as himself.

Sole Meeting, another gag, by Manoel de Oliveira and starring Michel Piccoli (left) and MdO fave Duarte de Almeida (right).

8,944 km From Cannes, a very pleasurable musical gag by Walter Salles.

War In Peace, either perverse or tragic, I don’t know which, by Wim Wenders.

Zhanxiou Village, supreme childhood pleasure by Chen Kaige.

Happy Ending, ironically funny ending by Ken Loach.

Epilogue is an excerpt from a Rene Clair film.

Not included in the DVD version was World Cinema by Joel & Ethan Coen and reportedly a second Walter Salles segment.

Not included in the program at all was Absurda by David Lynch (reportedly he submitted too late, so his short was shown separately). I saw a download copy… some digital business with crazed sound effects and giant scissors.