Manoel de Oliveira’s film career took off when most filmmakers start winding down. The Portuguese filmmaker, who died this week at 106 — several years after he was widely deemed the world’s oldest living director — had only two features to his name when he was 55, but completed nearly 30 by the time he made his Cannes premiere at the age of 102.
Despite his late start, however, Oliveira embodied cinematic progress with a breadth that matched his age, acting in silent films in the early thirties and enduring censorship laws that prohibited his filmmaking career from making much progress until the end of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship.
In the ’70s, Oliveira made a string of well-received adaptations, focusing on the work of several Portuguese authors. His ambition increased during the eighties with a seven-hour adaptation of Paul Claudel’s play “The Satin Slipper,” and he kept churning out one feature after another. In the ’90s and the early aughts, he worked with John Malkovich on a string of pictures — “The Convent,” “I’m Going Home,” and “A Talking Picture” — though Oliveira never made any grand attempt to crossover to a larger audience. By the time he landed at Cannes with “The Strange Case of Angelica,” Oliveira had taken on a kind of mythological dimension among cinephiles, particularly in the United States, where virtually none of his work was released.
Though longtime Oliveira admirers may feel differently, “The Strange Case of Angelica” was a terrific moment to discover Oliveira’s distinct, experimental storytelling approach. Those in the audience for the Cannes premiere witnessed the spry, tuxedoed centurion bound onto the stage ahead of the screening, shrugging off attempts by Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux to offer assistance. The movie similarly defied expectations: The story of a a young photographer (Oliveira nephew Ricardo Trêpa) hired to take a picture of a deceased young woman for her bereaved Catholic family, the man discovers that he can see Angelica alive through the lens of his camera. So begins an off-kilter romance in which the protagonist is haunted by Angelica’s allure, an obsession that ultimately leads to a ghostly finale enhanced by remarkably effective CGI.
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Characters in Oliveira’s movies often deliver their dialogue with peculiar rhythms that draw attention to the artifice in play. But more often than not, this enhances the deep sense of mystery at work. The films Oliveira produced during the final stages of his career are paragons of his technique at its best. In addition to “Angelica,” these also include the grim relationship drama “Eccentricities of a Blond Girl,” which relies on a peculiar flashback strategy that calls its entire narrative into question, as well as the eerily minimalist “Gebo and the Shadow.”
Oliveira’s adaptation of Raul Brandao’s play is a lovely treatise on the claustrophobic limitations of daily life. Largely set in a single room as its subjects gaze into the distance and bemoan their impoverished existence, the movie features brooding turns by Jeanne Moreau and especially Michael Lonsdale in the title role. The tale of an elderly French family whose son went missing long ago, its modicum of plot involves the arrival of the downtrodden young man (Ricard Trepa, Oliveira’s nephew) as he attempts to rob his hardworking father of cash. A pensive chamber drama of the highest order, “Gebo and the Shadow” excels at creating a deeply melancholic atmosphere and hugging it tightly.
Though he completed some short films afterward, “Gebo and the Shadow” would be Oliveira’s final feature-length effort, and it was good way to go out. The movie’s sense of mortal urgency and existential discord is palpable throughout — it’s a meditation on the fear of dying without achieving one’s full potential, a feeling that no doubt kept Oliveira going through the decades.
More than that, “Gebo and the Shadow” is anything but a traditional commercial movie. Oliveira’s ability to develop continually challenging work that pushed against audience expectations, fusing literary and cinematic ambitions with ongoing ingenuity, implicitly challenged the limitations of the marketplace. As Portugal’s most famous and revered director, his legacy continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers, including rising star Miguel Gomes (“Tabu”), whose reportedly six-and-a-half hour “Arabian Nights” is likely to surface in the upcoming Cannes lineup. Meanwhile, Oliveira’s filmography offers a treasure trove of possibilities for upcoming restorations, which means his work won’t be going away anytime soon.