“Anxiety” marks yet another turning point in the career of Portuguese maestro Manoel de Oliveira, a three-part omnibus of stories vaguely linked together by the theme of death. A work certain to be of interest to Oliveira’s arthouse and festival following, it is probably too quirky and full of longueurs to be a good intro for new viewers. Without major actors (except for a cameo by Irene Papas), auds will have little to grasp onto apart from the director’s reputation.
Still turning out intellectually engaging work at age 89, Oliveira is easy to interpolate into the first episode, “The Immortals.” A father of 80 (the passionate, irascible Jose Pinto) and his son of 60 (laid-back Luis-Miguel Cintra), both famous doctors, argue about whether it isn’t better to die before they get senile. The son is absolutely in favor of living, while his father comically but diabolically tempts him to swallow a cyanide pill. Lensing and dialogue revel in the tale’s origins as a stage play by Helder Prista Monteiro, and witty as Pinto and Cintra make the nonstop chatter, the story is terribly, if deliberately, static. A clever ending, showing the cast on a stage, lightens up the mood and provides a surprise transition to “Suzy,” set in the 1930s.
Suzy (Leonor Silveira) and her friend (Rita Blanco) are beautiful young courtesans in the Oporto demimonde. A languidly handsome dandy (Diogo Doria) falls hard for Suzy, whom he sees as a sensitive soul, an exploited woman and a real pro in bed. He longs to have her uniqueness immortalized in writing. He makes her see that her life has offered her everything but happiness, just before she dies on the operating table. Story by Antonio Patricio is somewhere between Dumas and Proust, while Oliveira’s favorite muse, Silveira, lends Suzy a bewitching melancholy and sophisticated, fatalistic perversion.
To console Doria’s character, his friend (David Cardoso) tells him the legend of Fisalina (Leonor Baldaque), a girl from a remote mountain village who pays a visit to the “mother of a river” (Papas). As the ageless guardian of humanity, Papas lends a sympathetic ear to the girl’s longing to marry a boy (Ricardo Trepa) from another village. Taking her to a candle-lit cave, Papas transfers her own golden fingers and 1,000-year immortality to the girl, along with her mystical duties.
Based on a short story by Oliveira’s regular scripter, Agustina Bessa-Luis, “Mother of a River” is an eerie fable about the possibility, and personal price, of eternal life. Besides Papas’ intense cameo, it finally gives Renato Berta a chance to do some interesting camerawork in the night scenes of black-cloaked villagers carrying torches and chasing the gold-fingered “witch” out of town.
No strong connecting thread winds through this trio of stories, unless it is an obsession with the encroaching end. From the comic-tragic anxiety of the old doctor who cries, “We’re half of what we were!” to the concluding fantasy of merging with nature, “Anxiety” keeps death at a finely literate distance, a good place from which to contemplate it.