Filmmaker Firsts: Manoel de Oliveira

#3: A Talking Picture (2003) – dir. Manoel de Oliveira

World-famous as the “oldest active filmmaker” around, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (b. 1908) directed this feature when he was 94 years old. His output has earned him nominations and awards at the famous film festivals in Berlin, Cannes and Venice. Now age 105, Oliveira continues to be prolific, with his most recent effort, Gebo and the Shadow (2012), nominated for Best Film at the Portuguese Golden Globes and with other projects currently in development.

True to its title, A Talking Picture is comprised mostly of dialogue rather than action. The first half of the film is essentially a travelogue, in which the main characters Rosa Maria (Leonor Silveira) and her daughter Maria Joana (Filipa de Almeida) visit many historical sites in Europe. A history professor who teaches at the University of Lisbon, Rosa Maria is pleased to finally see the places she has studied in person and to share the experience with young Maria Joana.

The traditional uses of plot and momentum are forgone in order to focus on the oral tradition of storytelling and remembrance of history. This can be tiresome since the scenes on both the cruise ship and in the different countries rely on a repetitive formula, although some of the visuals by cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel are quite nice.

Halfway through the film, at the 45-minute mark, focus is shifted to the captain of the cruise ship, played by John Malkovich, who has a dinner party with three distinguished guests of honor played by Catherine Deneuve, Irene Papas and Stefania Sandrelli. Although the characters converse in four different languages, they are always able to understand one another. In a scene lasting twenty minutes, the discussion between these characters covers history, philosophy, politics and the dynamics between men and women. Malkovich is annoying, but his three companions are lovely, especially when Papas sings a quiet but stirring Greek melody for the entire dining hall. Sandrelli also has a touching moment when she tells Silveira with a sad smile that she is envious of her motherhood (all three older women at Malkovich’s table are childless).

While I do not care for the ending (including Oliveira’s decision on the final shot), I must admit that the film makes some interesting points about culture, tradition and the increasing violence of modern society. I would prefer an Oliveira film with more of a real storyline, though.

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2 thoughts on “Filmmaker Firsts: Manoel de Oliveira

    • Thanks. I’m definitely interested in seeing Belle Toujours, which is his 2006 “sequel” to Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour. I’ve also heard great things about Oliveira’s film I’m Going Home, which I’m sure is worth watching for Catherine Deneuve and the great Michel Piccoli.

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