If Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira expanded his fan club with his last, “Valley of Abraham,” the same cannot be said of the small, theatrical “A Caixa” (translated as “Blind Man’s Buff” but literally “The Box”). The director’s sly wit and wide-angle view on the human condition are still present, but his tale of poverty and misery, set in a back alley, remains earthbound. Oliveira’s loyal following will probably assure Euro arthouse release.
Anopening tag warns audience not to mistake pic for a documentary but to read it as a fable about anachronisms of today’s society. Actually, there is small chance that viewers will think the setting — a hillside, staircased alley, inhabited by characters obviously written for the stage — is meant to represent a real place.
Film opens with a drunken gendarme tottering past a big arrow pointing to a theater, and also contains a scene in which dancing fairies appear on the stairway in a kind of entr’acte.
As the neighborhood leisurely awakens, the characters are introduced: a kindly bartender, an old harridan who uses the street as a latrine, a busybody selling chestnuts, a breezy young streetwalker and an unhappy family.
A blind old man (Luis Miguel Cintra) sits in the doorway, selling thread and begging, while his resentful daughter (Beatriz Batarda) wears herself out ironing for a living and lamenting her lot. He anxiously gropes for his collection box, which has been stolen before, and on which his daughter’s live-in boyfriend keeps a close eye.
Everyone in the neighborhood ogles the box enviously as the coins accumulate in the course of the morning. Three wastrels plot to steal it, while two boys wait for their chance. When the old man dozes off, the box disappears, lighting the fuse for tragedy.
This little parable about the human condition, which recalls Bunuel without the savagery, is watchable enough. It’s enlivened by an amusing perf from Oliveira regular Cintra, who rolls his eyes irresistibly, even while he gets the short end of the stick from the people who live off him. As the daughter who hates him, Batarda is loathsome, making her sudden conversion to wannabe sainthood at pic’s end all the more ironic.
Though all perfs are superior, few thesps are able to break out of the theatrical caricature Oliveira obviously required. Exceptions are the actors playing the bartender, who rightly calls himself a simple man with feelings, and a music prof fallen on hard times who plays an extraordinary rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” on his guitar.
Choice of music is imaginative throughout, with space found for a little Nino Rota/Fellini circus theme as well as local ballads.