The dean of Portuguese cinema, Manoel de Oliveira, has blazed an arthouse career with literary adaptations and mind-teasers. In “Word and Utopia,” he makes a script out of the collected sermons of a 17th-century Jesuit priest, which in terms of natural cinematic affinity rate just above the telephone book. Lacking the playfulness of his best work, pic narrows its focus so much that even dyed-in-the-wool Oliveira fans may tune out at times. Nevertheless, though sidestepping period drama to be a film about the use of words, pic is able to turn this unpromising material into some riveting moments of missionary fervor, political conviction and rage against encroaching death. Clearly a tough sell, this challenging film is likely to find its main audience among the regulars.
Young Father Antonio Vieira (Ricardo Trepa) is a Jesuit missionary in Brazil who has vowed to dedicate his life to fighting slavery and the abuse of Indians and blacks. He takes off for Portugal, survives a shipwreck, gets King Joao IV’s support for his cause and becomes the royal family’s confessor. Using extremely simple images including a map, a rough sea and Vieira staggering along the shore, Oliveira cuts his storytelling to a bare minimum. To illustrate how popular his sermons are, a crowd of Indians is shown standing outside a packed church.
In his middle years, Vieira (Luis Miguel Cintra) becomes famous even in Rome for these stirring sermons, preaching against colonialism, in favor of converted Jews and other progressive ideas of the time. He dazzles Queen Christina of Sweden (radiantly limned by Oliveira’s muse, Leonor Silveira, almost the only female in the film), who asks him to become her confessor. He makes an enemy of the Portuguese Inquisition, and is frequently called to account for his more visionary, unorthodox ideas.
Lima Duarte plays the priest in his later years, a feisty, controversial figure on the international scene. Losing his eyesight, he dictates ever crankier letters to popes and kings through his faithful secretary at the mission. In the final scenes he becomes an intellectual, slightly dotty version of King Lear, raging against old age and working on a multivolume “History of the Future.”
When Father Vieira isn’t onscreen preaching and explaining himself, his writings, sermons and letters are heard in an offscreen voiceover, so there is scarcely a nonverbal moment. This is hard on non-Portuguese speakers, forced to read enough subtitles to fill a small book.
The three Vieiras — Trepa, Cintra and Duarte — are very different from one another, each bringing the great historical figure to life via his ideas, without the daily minutiae that pad most costume dramas. Renato Berta’s lensing keeps the style simple, showing a few architectural details or colors to indicate a place and time.