This one really hurts, folks: Manoel de Oliveira was one of the greats. He was also, of course, the world’s oldest active filmmaker and it is unlikely that any director will ever again be so active at such an advanced age. His 106 years on this earth spanned virtually the entire history of feature-length narrative cinema and his filmography spanned an astonishing 84 of those years — from the incredible “city symphony” film Labor on the Douro River in 1931, made when Oliveira was 22-years-old during what was still the silent-film era in Portugal, to the two shorts he made that premiered at last fall’s Venice International Film Festival (one of which was the festival’s official trailer), made when he was 105. All of which is to say that the old man wasn’t just a righteous soldier of cinema, he was the cinema. Oliveira was in many ways the last exemplar of — indeed he seemed to be synonymous with — a strain of now-extinct 1960s European art film in spite of the fact that he was barely active during that particular decade; Portugal’s then-fascist government had intentionally stymied his career, once even arresting him and interrogating him for 10 days because of a movie.
Oliveira had the last laugh, however, outliving Portugal’s “Estado Novo” era, and embarking on the prolific late phase of his career (and achieving his greatest successes) at an age when most other directors start to retire. His films were intellectually vigorous and deliberately slow, long before “slow cinema” became fashionable on the arthouse circuit, and he emphasized rather than downplayed their literary and theatrical origins. But he was also, in the best Bunuellian vein, a Surrealist prankster who included a shocking “throwing a cat” gag in his Madame Bovary adaptation Abraham’s Valley and pulled the rug out from under the audience completely with the full-blown insanity of the ending of his film-opera The Cannibals. One of the proudest moments of my professional career was presenting the belated Chicago theatrical premiere of the latter as a midnight movie at Facets Multimedia in 2013. The screening was well attended and when I polled the audience beforehand I was astonished to find that literally none of them had seen an Oliveira film before. The nocturnal creatures in attendance were clearly expecting a cult-horror movie about cannibalism and yet, when the screening ended, everyone seemed to have enjoyed it, with many remarking that it was far weirder than what they had anticipated.
Manoel de Oliveira was previously on my list of the 10 Best Living Directors (his place has since been taken by Claire Denis). Here is what I originally wrote about him there in January, 2011:
“At 102 years of age, Manoel de Oliveira is by far the oldest director on this list. Incredibly, unlike a lot of the other filmmakers cited here (many of whom have either officially or unofficially retired), Oliveira is not only still active but prolific, having made at least one feature a year since 1990. This recent spate of films constitutes more than half of his body of work, which is extremely impressive considering he started directing in the silent era. Oliveira’s style is not for everyone: his movies, made in conscious opposition to Hollywood conventions, tend to be slow, deliberately paced literary adaptations centered on the theme of doomed love. But if you can find yourself in tune with the rhythm of his unique brand of filmmaking, Oliveira’s best work – including Abraham’s Valley (by far the best film adaptation of Madame Bovary I know of) and the brilliant triptych Anxiety (Inquietude) — can be both intensely cinematic and soul-stirring.
Essential work: Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraao) (1993), Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)”
It is regrettable that Oliveira had trouble making features in the last few years of his life — not due to ill health but rather due to the difficulty of getting his films insured. He was not able to realize, for instance, his dream project of adapting Machado de Assis’s masterful short story “The Devil’s Church,” although one hopes that another filmmaker, perhaps a Portuguese director like Pedro Costa or Miguel Gomes, may end up inheriting Oliveira’s finished screenplay. Still, he was able to complete eight films after his 100th birthday and one can only hope that his death will bring renewed interest to this work. His final feature, the highly regarded Gebo and the Shadow from 2012, still hasn’t received a Chicago premiere.
The Strange Case of Angelica, which saw the old master learning new tricks by employing CGI, was number one on my list of the best films of the 2011: https://whitecitycinema.com/2011/12/26/top-ten-films-of-2011/
You can read a transcript of my introduction to the Chicago premiere of The Cannbials here: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/12/01/celluloid-flashback-the-cannibals/
Last but not least, you should watch this film of Oliveira dancing in public at the ripe old age of 99. It’s good for the soul:
April 2nd, 2015 at 1:05 pm
R. I.P. Manoel de Oliveira (aged 106)
People will miss him.
April 2nd, 2015 at 4:22 pm
That is very sad. Aside from being the oldest filmmaker to work actively (he was of course 106 years old), Manoel de Oliveira was also one of the many greatest filmmakers in my opinion. If you would like to search my archives on http://www.cinematiccoffee.com, you will find a blog entry in regarding my favorite films by him. May he rest in peace. Anyway, I know now is not the time to bring this up but I have a new blog post up on my site http://www.cinematiccoffee.com Here is the link below:
April 2nd, 2015 at 4:31 pm
Thanks for the response, John. I’m completely ignorant of Waters’ work so I have nothing to say about your list. I did however look up your Oliveira list and was pleased to see I’M GOING HOME at the top. What a film!
April 2nd, 2015 at 4:50 pm
This might be a strange thing to say, but I was happy that I learned of this from your blog. The man was born seven years before Birth Of A Nation appeared and he was still going strong. Wow. I’ve only ever seen one of his films: No, or the vanity of glory. It was playing at the Music Box when I arrived in Chicago in 1990. I need to see more.
December 30th, 2015 at 10:19 am
[…] My top ten lists in the past have always consisted only of feature-length movies. I’m making an exception this year for the extraordinary 15-minute short One Century of Power, the final film of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira. Made when Oliveira was 106-years-old (and released posthumously online in June), this wordless documentary begins with a static shot of a quartet of classical musicians performing in what appears to be a large empty building. Oliveira then pans his camera 90 degrees to the right where images from a silent black-and-white documentary are being projected onto a wall. Those images are from Hulha Branca, Oliveira’s own non-fiction short from 1932 about the creation of Portugal’s first water-powered electrical plant. The remainder of One Century of Power sees Oliveira cutting back and forth between shots from Hulha Branca and shots taken in the same locations today. Eventually, three women wearing red dresses perform a dance in front of the projector causing large silhouettes of their figures to dance across the documentary images on the wall. The idea of a filmmaker interacting with one of his own movies from more than 80 years previously is unprecedented in the history of cinema but, more than being a mere stunt, this allows for a perfect articulation of the film’s moving themes of renewable energy and rebirth. I was also reminded of Adrian Martin’s assertion in his splendid new book Mise en Scene and Film Style that “dance films” are particularly beloved by cinephiles because mise-en-scene is so concerned with capturing “bodies in space.” You can watch One Century of Power in its entirety on YouTube here. You can read my obituary of Oliveira here. […]