Newspaper article International New York Times

A Film Legend's Posthumous Self-Portrait ; Manoel De Oliveira Kept His 1982 Movie from the Public until His Death

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Film Legend's Posthumous Self-Portrait ; Manoel De Oliveira Kept His 1982 Movie from the Public until His Death

Article excerpt

Manoel de Oliveira kept his 1982 movie from the public until his death

Dead men tell no tales, so the saying goes. Unless, of course, your name is Manoel de Oliveira.

When the Portuguese filmmaker died in April at the improbable age of 106, it seemed that a voluminous career spanning more than 50 films had come to an end. But decades earlier, Mr. Oliveira had made provisions for one of his films to be shown only after his death. "Visita ou Memorias e Confissoes" (Memories and Confessions) was its typically evocative title, and it had appeared in his filmography as a 1982 production, but with little other detail than its posthumous clause.

Last week, "Visita" had its belated international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The packed screening in the Cannes Classics section followed the mysterious film's public unveilings this month in Porto -- Mr. Oliveira's hometown -- and in Lisbon at the Cinemateca Portugesa.

These were the first times "Visita" had been screened for a public audience. That fact (and Mr. Oliveira's distinction) made for a rare programming decision at the French festival.

"It's a film we took sight unseen! How could we resist this message from beyond the grave that Manoel sent us?" Thierry Fremaux, the Cannes festival's director, wrote in an email.

The object of such secrecy turned out to be an affecting, deeply personal film. "Visita" was shot at the Porto house where Mr. Oliveira had lived for four decades before making the film but then had been forced to sell. The 68-minute feature is largely an autobiographical monologue delivered by the director himself, with family photos and the odd bit of cinematic magic. Mr. Oliveira, 73 at the time, presides from his office, clad in a sweater, slacks and shaded glasses. He periodically switches on a film projector that points at the camera.

"It's a film by me, for me," Mr. Oliveira says at one point. "Right or wrong, it's done."

In a mischievous gesture, a small reproduction of a painting is always noticeable amid the books in the background: the Mona Lisa. That sense of implied enigma is bolstered by the framing device of a couple who visit the house (for what exact purpose is unclear) and trade musings in a voiceover written by Agustina Bessa-Luis, a frequent collaborator of Mr. Oliveira's.

"Visita" amounts to the director's ancestral and philosophical inventory. Mr. Oliveira outlines his family tree, introduces his wife, Maria Isabel (to whom the film is dedicated), and expounds upon his beliefs -- dryly but with the possibility of irony -- about cinema, religion, history and virginity. "Visita" has political content of a sort: a dramatic reenactment of Mr. Oliveira's detainment in 1963 by the Portuguese secret police, or PIDE, under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and a mention of the aftermath of the country's 1974 revolution and its impact on his family's company. Yet Mr. Oliveira's solo scenes are at once simple and beguiling, like many of his recent films.

At Cannes, the film was screened to great acclaim, and as a "new" film, it received reviews. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that it provided "much insight into a unique European filmmaker who followed his own path with such energetic irony. …

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