One of those first-world, ‘not so important in the grand scheme of life’ regrets I still harbour (and I’m sure many other film lovers have their own similar tales of woe to share) is my decision not to purchase the gargantuan Manoel de Oliveira 22 disc boxset from Portugal when I was traveling there a few years ago. Already perilously close to having the seams of my check-in and carry-on luggage split from books, magazines and DVDs, this massive obelisk of a collection was just not going to fit in anywhere no matter how many mental Tetris-like games I played in my mind figuring out how to make the physics work.
It was sitting there on the shelves of an El Corte Ingles, beckoning me to enter the (admittedly selected, given the dozens and dozens of films not included amongst the 21 on offer) filmography of one of cinema’s masters whose complete body of work has been largely unavailable to see outside of festivals, the odd bootleg or occasional US release, and I declined.
Some film lovers I know find his filmography just too daunting to properly penetrate and I understand the concern: lack of easy availability, the perceived notion that the finer resonance of some of his work will be lost on a non-Portuguese, the sheer lack of time we all face to delve deeper in to an ever expanding menu of global cinema being served up every day. But I do truly regret not taking the plunge and getting to grips with Manoel de Oliveira’s work. I have since played catch-up whenever I can on whatever format comes along.
Full disclosure time: I haven’t seen all that much of de Oliveira’s work, I probably never will get around to even watching the majority of his work but from the little I’ve seen, I can appreciate and fully understand why he’s declared a master artist of the medium by the cine-cognoscenti. The sheer longevity of his career is something to admire and respect but the venerable status he holds among cinephiles is not really built upon the concept of staying-power, it is built upon the soaring highs his best work achieved.
Few would be foolish enough to assert that his sprawling career contained masterpiece after masterpiece but there were masterpieces all the same, say Francisca or Doomed Love, and the last few years saw his work find an ever expanding audience as Belle Toujours, The Strange Case of Angelica and Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl found foreign home video distribution relatively quickly after initial release.
When news came of his passing at age 106, I went and pulled out a DVD of Aniki Bobo, a film which you couldn’t really claim to be his best (one however that many claim anticipated Italian neorealism) but it is a film whose images and general tone I remember fondly and felt the desire to revisit immediately. The way the film captures the looming shadows of children running through alleyways in the night; the tender rooftop rendezvous between a smitten boy and the girl he’s fallen for; a starlit sky as children wax lyrical about heaven, the soul and butterflies. It is a film of immense emotional depth even if I was slightly unsure of what to expect after it announces itself with the kind of dramatic punch-in-the-face you’d expect from a Samuel Fuller film. It is a film concerning the bittersweet nature of life at its beginnings, the excitement, the unknown, childhood.
I then found a copy of de Oliveira’s last feature film, the superb (if rather bleak) Gebo and the Shadow and revisited that. For a truly illuminating exploration of that film I would encourage you to read the Portuguese critic Francisco Ferreira’s excellent piece in Cinema Scope [available at: http://cinema-scope.com/features/a-murderer-cannot-avoid-death-thoughts-on-manoel-de-oliveiras-gebo-and-the-shadow/].
There is no escaping the suffocating environments of Gebo or the stench of death that hangs over the unfolding tale. Aniki Bobo seems full of life, Gebo and the Shadow seems full of death. The former shot on film, the latter shot on high-definition video. Between childhood and death, there lies a world ripe for discovery. In de Oliveira’s filmography, I look forward to eventually starting the journey.