Never failing to surprise, Manoel de Oliveira, the dean of esoteric Portuguese filmmakers, delivers a change of pace in “Journey to the Beginning of the World.” Dropping the style of his recent films, Oliveira takes a direct approach to his characters’ emotions; it is still high-art territory, but the circle of fans could widen a bit, particularly on the strength of top-billed Marcello Mastroianni, in the last film he made before his death in December.
Mastroianni plays an aging film director named Manoel, a role that seems suspiciously autobiographical for the filmmaker. (The Italian actor even wears a white Panama, as Oliveira often does.) Manoel alludes to his unrequited passion for the spirited young actress Judite (Oliveira regular Leonor Silveira) and reminisces about his childhood, spent in a Jesuit college.
Much of the film unspools on Portugal’s scenic roads, where Manoel and several of his actors are traveling in search of the origins of Afonso (Jean Yves Gautier), a famous French actor whose father emigrated from Portugal to France.
Symbolizing Manoel’s looking back at his life, the highway unfurls behind the van like the road of memories, and the dialogue underlines the word saudade, Portuguese for memory.
In a key scene, Manoel and his actors stop to examine a statue of a man holding a trellis on his back, like it was the weight of the world. Manoel identifies strongly with the image; it is linked to human suffering in general, and to multiple references to wars “all over the world.”
Gradually the film’s focus shifts from Manoel to Afonso and his quest for his roots. Arriving in a poor village, Afonso meets his elderly aunt (Isabel de Castro) for the first time. She is suspicious of this nephew she didn’t know existed, particularly since he can’t speak Portuguese.
When she is finally convinced they are related, they fall into each other’s arms in a comical, low-key recognition scene that is among the most touching in Oliveira’s oeuvre. Film’s theme of war and suffering is refrained in the old woman’s perfect memory for the dates of wars and the village boys who died in them.
This is clearly an easier film for audiences to relate to than most of the director’s more cerebral efforts. Thesps move naturally for a change, and while dialogue in the first half of the film is typically witty and theatrical, the conversation between the two fine thesps Gautier and de Castro has a gripping believability.
Mastroianni fans will find it hard not to be moved by his portrayal of a character who calls himself old, lame and over the hill, and who looks death in the face with more irritation than philosophy. “A long life is a gift of God, but there is a price to it,” he says, referring to his dead family and friends. Mastroianni delivers the witty French dialogue with his trademark good humor, culture and humanity, giving pic the special resonance of a career tribute, without any morbidity. (The pic, which reps Mastroianni’s 171st role, is dedicated to the actor.)
Oliveira’s formal concerns reappear in the film’s use of Emmanuel Nunes’ stridently dissonant piano music, which shakes the van like rolling thunder as the past flies by.
Renato Berta’s cinematography, instead, uses natural lighting and few tricks, choosing an almost square format that emphasizes the vertical dimension.