Manoel de Oliveira’s Tetralogy of Frustrated Love
February 25-28 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Manoel de Oliveira is a strange case for cinema. The simplest reason for this lies in his biography, a story still being unraveled. As a young man in Portugal under the quasi-fascist regime of António Salazar, Oliveira stuck to making a handful of short, non-offensive documentaries about life in Portugal every few years. The social-realist Aniki-Bóbó (1942) showed promise in fiction filmmaking, but this film now seems incongruous in relation to what de Oliveira made in a more democratic Portugal a mere thirty years later. Here’s where that strange case comes in: de Oliveira, unrestricted by government control, would make films that were blithely, unapologetically aristocratic.
Manoel de Oliveira was an aristocrat, the blue-blooded European variety that America for all of its business booms has never known. What makes his strange case so strange are two major political events in his life: his arrest in the Salazar years and his destitution after his family’s dry-goods factory in Oporto was destroyed by leftist revolutionaries. Yet his films never brim with the revolutionary spirit of one who has acquiesced to arrest, nor with a reactionary contempt for those who destroyed his fortunes. De Oliveira presents the lives and struggles of the aristocracy because these were the stories he knew best. The best of those stories were about love.
The Tetralogy of Frustrated Love consists of Past and Present (1972), made with his fortunes still intact, Benilde (1974), the rarity Doomed Love (1979), and Francisca (1981). Though it’s much harder to classify a de Oliveira film than, say, a Hitchcock, the Tetraology can also be seen as a progression as the director finds his repeated styles, themes, moods, characters, actors, and sensibilities. Past and Present could nearly pass as one of his Salazar-era films, the camera flying by characters as if once again tracing the streets of Oporto. However, de Oliveira now hides the working class from the frame, focusing instead on elaborate set design, expensive costumes, orchestral tracks, and a rather haunting plot about a widow still in love with her dead husband.
With his name now attached to a developing film world in a free Portugal, the already-sixty-four-year-old de Oliveira (N.B.: he died last year) significantly increased his workload by making a film every year or two instead of every twenty. The even more haunting Benilde, or the Virgin Mother presents unrequited love as the exact opposite of a murder mystery. Benilde, adorned in period garb of a powerful aristocracy, is pregnant. Considering that she has not yet entered into her arranged marriage to her cousin, this is not good for the family. The second strange case of Manoel de Oliveira lies in his ability to never force an empathetic feeling toward his characters, allowing the mystery of their actions to steal the show. Benilde repeatedly claims that she was chosen by God á la Mary, her fiancé claims that he raped her, and the normally pious family cast doubts upon both of them: no easy answers here. A terrifying scene near the beginning of the film shows priest and doctor gossiping about Benilde’s condition, only for the white figure of Benilde to slowly materialize in the background, accented by a sharp change in music. Though it never goes into full surrealism, scenes like this would come to dominate de Oliviera’s career.
If that scene is emblematic of de Oliveira’s mood, Doomed Love is the Rosetta Stone to what he would try to articulate in all future films. At the epic length of 270 minutes, the 1979 film (the years-long gap here due to the strife of low-budget production rather than political atmosphere) captures love at its most nascent and de Oliveira at his most inventive. The painstaking measures put into staging, lighting, and blocking in this film would form the signature style of arthouse leaders Straub and Huillet, sparking that ever-present debate about just how many really slow (but good-looking) films we need. De Oliveira’s esoteric style is matched with the story, based on a very popular Portuguese novel that seems to tackle the same territory as Romeo and Juliet. The title gives it away: the couple born of feuding families never quite end up together, but their strange attraction and loads of love letters are dominated by that de Oliveira touch of almost-surrealism. It’s worth seeing this just for the craftsmanship on display here, it’s worth seeing this just for how extraordinarily rare it is, but most of all it’s worth seeing that particular type of masterpiece that can only come from the aristocracy’s search for meaning.
The series ends with Francisca, one of his most critically successful films, and one of few that made him any money. By this point, de Oliveira could take the style he’d perfected in Doomed Love and apply it to shorter, better-funded projects. This shows, not only in the much better lighting of Francisca, but also in the European festival circuits around this time. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman had conquered the conversation about where art film could go, while the box office potential for Hollywood blockbusters skyrocketed. De Oliveira had no abrasive politics like Godard, nor did he capture the right arthouse markets like Andrei Tarkovsky. For most of his 106 years, his films went by without much attention. Now, de Oliveira’s films can be revisited and re-loved, with this tetralogy acting as a guide to the rest of his masterful career.