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

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


6 Responses to “Journey to the Beginning of the World: Does language count?”

  1. Maybe the film answer’s the question itself with the line “language doesn’t matter” — but the argument that blood is what matters doesn’t seem to apply, since MM isn’t Portuguese by descent. Maybe all that matters is that you HAVE blood?

  2. It’s a really lovely film about old age, written and directed by a man who’s REALLY old — but sharper than a tack.

    See also his I’m Going Home with the great Michel Piccoli.

  3. Yes, I want to see both! That’s a formidable filmography I’m going to have to get to grips with.

    Agree with you re Hugo, BTW.

  4. Oh yes, David E. I also love ‘I’m Going Home’. But I’m damned if I can find the notes I wrote on it. Senior moments, eh?

  5. david wingrove Says:

    Many thanks for a superb piece, which I’ve only just now got round to reading!

    Although I’ve seen and loved this film, I had totally forgotten that Mastroianni’s never once speaks in Portuguese. Was I perhaps so absorbed that I never noticed? Quite possible.

    To complain about a detail like this in a de Oliveira film seems to show a fundamental misunderstanding of his work. While his films may look realistic on the surface, they are in fact studies of dream and memory where – as one character so rightly says – “language doesn’t count.”

    The standard procedure in any Euro co-production would be to shoot all the actors in their own language, and then dub the film as needed into Portuguese/German/French/Italian/Spanish etc.

    De Oliveira, who seems to value the authenticity of an actor’s own voice, must have made a deliberate choice not to do that. For that he deserves respect.

  6. Pretty much any bold decision deserves some kind of respect. Or, as my cinematographer likes to say, “You always get rewarded for bravery.” I can take my hat off to bold but foolish ideas that don’t come off, as well as those that do.

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