Archive for Manoel de Oliveira

Journey to the Beginning of the World: Does language count?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2011 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean offers this late film treat — 

There is no exact equivalent in English of the Portuguese word saudade (although, in hiraeth, the Welsh have something that comes very close). It describes a feeling that permeates much of the country’s art – especially its music and literature – and means a nostalgic yearning for a place, a person, or a time that may no longer exist.  Manoel de Oliveira, the veteran Portuguese director, explores this yearning in the minds of two different men in his 1996 film Journey to the Beginning of the World (Viagem ao Principio do Mundo).

Marcello Mastroianni plays de Oliveira’s alter ego, a Portuguese director called appropriately Manoel who, on a break from filming, is accompanying three of his cast on a road trip. We only learn the purpose of their journey as the film gradually progresses.   One of them, Afonso, was born in France to a Portuguese father.  Now a successful middle-aged actor, he wants to find his aunt Maria, his father’s older sister, and to learn something of his father’s youth and the family he left behind at the age of 14.

The area they pass through on the way to her village holds memories for Manoel so they stop at significant places in his life and listen to his reminiscences of childhood, his education at a Jesuit school and his military service.  It must be assumed that it is de Oliveira’s own memories that he recounts.

Manoel’s detailed recall, en route, of his past life and Afonso’s discovery, once they reach their destination, of a past he has little knowledge of, provide the viewer with two forms of saudade on which to reflect.

It could be argued that Journey to the Beginning of the World is a road movie, but if so, it’s not a conventional one. In keeping with its theme, it looks not at the road ahead, but at the road already travelled.  De Oliveira conveys this through camera positioning. The viewpoint is from the rear of the vehicle so that the road over which it has just passed stands as a metaphor for Manoel’s past life.

It was to be Mastroianni’s last film and marked the end of a 50-year career in which he appeared in more than 140.  At the age of 72 he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and did not live to see its release.  It carries a dedication to his memory.  Knowing how ill he was, it cannot have been easy for him to play an older, sick man (Manoel is said to be 80) and to perform dialogue that dwells on mortality and the sorrows of ageing, but he does so with melancholy charm and, on occasions, mischievousness.  His gentle teasing from Judite (de Oliveira regular Leonor Silveira) and their mildly flirtatious relationship is handled with delicacy, and one senses the mutual regret at their age difference.

It is happily ironic that de Oliveira himself continues to thrive until this day.  In a career of astonishing longevity, he released his most recent feature, The Strange Case of Angelica, in 2010 at the age of 102 and already has two more films in pre- and post-production.

Once the companions locate Maria’s village, the landscape, the light, and the mood change.  Gone are the sunlit tourist areas, the open roads and the story of a privileged life.  We find ourselves in rocky terrain overlooked by grim mountains and an enclosed rural community where life is hard.

Maria is at first suspicious of Afonso.  What does he want?  Is it money?  (She remembers that a cow had to be sold to buy his father’s release from the Fascists when he got caught up in the Spanish Civil War.) Has he come to claim land?  But what arouses her suspicion more than anything is his ignorance of Portuguese.

How can he be her nephew if he is unable to speak to her in her own language?

This appears an insurmountable problem and the question is repeatedly posed. It is only finally resolved when Afonso makes an impassioned speech about their shared bloodline. “Language, who cares about that?  Language doesn’t count!  Blood counts!” She glimpses something of his father in him and the connection is made.

The performance of Isabel de Castro as Maria is so compelling and so authentic that I had to check the credits to satisfy myself that she was indeed a professional actor.  In a single-shot scene that follows, lasting about seven minutes, she gives a simple, but moving, account of life in the village and how the people there appear forgotten by the authorities “except when they come for our boys to fight in their wars.”   As a lesson in a country’s history and a depiction of the plight of the elderly poor, it is unsurpassed.

The whole of the second half of the film comes as a surprise. There is no indication at the start that the focus will shift to Afonso or that what begins with uncomplicated nostalgia will turn to such a profound tale of exile and loss.  I find it de Oliveira’s most affecting work.

The issue of language took an unexpected turn when I showed the film recently to my son and his Portuguese partner in the hope that they would love it as I do.  Their reaction was surprising.  Jean-Yves Gautier, the actor playing Afonso speaks French throughout (as befits his French-born character) but, as Mastroianni clearly didn’t speak Portuguese, so does his character, Manoel. The two bilingual members of the party, Judite and Duarte (Diogo Dória) therefore have to translate for his benefit as well as Afonso’s.

This had not been a problem for me on my first viewing, dependent as I was on the English subtitles, but my young companions were outraged.  In an uncanny echo of the doubts expressed by Aunt Maria about Afonso’s identity, their cry was  “How can he play a Portuguese film director, reminiscing about his childhood and education in Portugal, when he doesn’t speak a word of the language??”  To which I had no answer. Do you?

Judy Dean

30.11.11

The Late Show 2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2011 by dcairns

It continues — here’s where I’ll post links to blog posts in The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon. This post will stay at the top, if I can figure out how to do that, with my own entries appearing — slowly — down beneath it.

Late Losey — M KLEIN, today.

Diarmid Mogg, author of my favourite movie speciality blog, The Unsung Joe, weighs in on one of Hollywood’s forgotten men, John Ince (brother of the more famous Thomas and Ralph), here. It’s an eye-opener!

For Shadowplay, David Melville continues his alphabetical survey of Mexican melodrama with LA GENERALA, the last film of Maria Felix.

Ben Alpers on MOONRISE, my favourite late Borzage — maybe my favourite Borzage.

Gareth comes up trumps with another Melville piece — UN FLIC stars Delon and is cool as ice.

Late Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle? Are you sure? Wanna make something of it?

HUGO receives tender loving care from Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, who suggested the idea of this blogathon over dinner in Brooklyn. And HUGO is not only the latest film from a senior film artist, but a film about the Autumn years of a great filmmaker. Go here, at once.

At the ever-excellent Gareth’s Movie Diary, LE CERCLE ROUGE is the topic of the day — late Melville, late Bourvil, and a terrific piece.

I try to tackle one of the trickiest entries in Richard Lester’s career, his last fiction feature, whose modest virtues are forever overshadowed by an on-set tragedy — THE RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS.

Over at the excellent Robert Donat site, Gill Fraser Lee assesses THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS, mid-period Mark Robson, but Donat’s last film, made when he was extremely ill. This is a thoughtful and deeply moving piece and I’m proud I nudged Gill towards writing it (but also a little guilty). Boy! This kind of piece makes this whole blogathon thing worthwhile.

It suddenly occurred to me, after watching and loving HUGO, to wonder about Georges Melies last film — the story of his career’s end was well known to me, but I hadn’t looked at anything from the very end of his career. So I did.

My own first entry approaches LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a late-ish George Cukor I really enjoyed, with fine late-ish performances by Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. Here.

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean looks at The Great Mastroianni’s last bow, in Manoel de Oliveira’s VOYAGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD (below).

David Ehrenstein proves that great minds think alike with THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW (above and here).

The ball got rolling with two late Ken Russells from the late Ken Russell, over at Brandon’s Movie Memory here and here.

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