The undying spirit of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira

  • Gautaman Bhaskaran, Hindustan Times, Chennai
  • Updated: Apr 03, 2015 17:04 IST

I first saw the celebrated Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, in the Cannes of 1990s, when he was already into his mid-eighties. But then he could take on a Sumo wrestler, not necessarily in physical weight but in spirit and energy, which stayed with him till his last day on April 2. He died in Porto in Portugal aged 106 -- undoubtedly the oldest moviemaker who made 50 films -- the last, Gebo and the Shadow, being in 2012.

His movies competed at Cannes on five occasions, and the festival gave him an honorary Palm in 2008 for 'blending aesthetic contemplation and technological innovations'.

During one of the several interviews I had with Oliveira, he quipped, do you know the secret of my youthfulness? Perplexed, I shook my head to say no. He smiled, that utterly charming smile which must have got many hearts into a tizzy, and said: "I never let my brain sleep." But then there was something else that must have kept him as smashingly agile as always was -- and I have never seen him in a wheel chair. He was always in the midst of young people, their 'youngness' refreshing his mind and body.

It is a pity that Oliveira's career bloomed only late in his life, although he began making films during the silent era. In the 1970s, when the dictatorial regime ended in his native Portugal, his moviemaking ability flowered. Earlier, he was unable to make the kind of cinema he wanted to, because the repressive Antonio de Oliveira Salazar -- who came to power in 1932 -- frowned upon artistic liberty. It was only in the 1970s with the end of authoritarianism that Manoel really stepped behind the camera, and for the past 25 years, he was illustriously described as the oldest moviemaker in the world. And, he really made up for the lost time, and when others of his age were getting into their twilight of creativity, Oliveira was charged with unimaginable zeal.

Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich in a still from The Convent by Manoel de Oliveira.

Some called him, though, as a director lost in a time warp. His cinema seemed to be drawn towards the themes and tradition of an era gone by. It was sad, sometimes quirky, and dealt with love and death. However, critics were invariably kind to him. His age and his inability to make films when he was young earned him not just some kind of empathy, but also a strange sense of freedom to do what he wanted to. No questions asked, not really.

A review in the renowned French cinema journal, Cahiers du Cinema, of his 1998 Inquietude had this to say: "He is sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce."

Born in 1908 to a father who went on to build a hydroelectric plant, Manoel led a fascinatingly varied life as an athlete, a race-car driver and even a trapeze artist before taking the megaphone. His first movie was a short documentary, called Duro, Working River, which he made in 1931 about the bustle along a river in his hometown. After several documentaries, and a stint on his wife's farm and vineyard, he made his first feature, Aniki-Bobo, in 1942, a children's parable that is often seen as a forerunner to neorealism.

It was not easy to get his scripts approved by the state-run film commission, and so he could make only two movies between 1931 and 1970, and when Salazar was thrown out in 1974, Oliveira quickened his pace and started to put together all his ideas that had remained in gestation. Till about 1984, he made some great cinema - The Past and Present, Doomed Love, Benilde or the Virgin Mother and Francisca -- and these films were based on plays or novels and in periods from the early 19th century to the 1970s. They all spoke about obsessive passion.

Adapting movies from literary giants, like Agustina Bessa-Luis, Jose Regio, Flaubert, Beckett, Dostoyevsky, Paul Claudela and Camilo Castelo Branco, Oliveira painted his canvas with grand settings and philosophical themes. His The Satin Slipper in 1985, stretching to seven hours and based on an epic Claudel play, earned him the title of 'high-culture Mandarin'.

But I would think that his simplicity of method, long static takes, his ability to get his actors into naturally subdued forms reflected the auteur's inner self. He was amazingly friendly and disarming. Once I remember at Cannes when I was waiting to meet him in a hotel lobby, he saw me from a distance and excusing himself from an interviewer, walked up to me to apologise for the delay. Can I expect this from any Indian star? And mind you Oliveira was a star par excellence.

His last phase from 1990 to 2010 was his most prolific, and he made one movie every year -- a testament to his vitality. He made films not just in Portuguese, but also in French and used internationally famous actors like Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich. The Convent in 1995 had these two as leads and became the first movie of Oliveira's to be released in the US.

Later, his obsession with history egged him to make films such as Word and Utopia, Christopher Columbus, Enigma and The Vain Glory of Command.

And, believe it or not, the curtain is yet to fall. There is one more movie of his that has not been shown. His Visit/Memories and Confessions -- made in 1982 -- is said to be about the house where he lived. But this, he had said, could be screened only after his death.

We are waiting to see that, maybe at Cannes, for he was a favourite there.

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