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The Uncertainty Principle

The prolific dean of Portuguese directors Manoel de Oliveira returns to his patented brand of literary drawing room drama in "The Uncertainty Principle," but the film seems a step back from the invention and emotion of last year's poignant Michel Piccoli starrer "I'm Going Home." Circulation is likely to be restricted to true admirers.

After last year’s poignant Michel Piccoli starrer “I’m Going Home,” the prolific dean of Portuguese directors Manoel de Oliveira returns to his patented brand of literary drawing room drama in “The Uncertainty Principle.” Based on a novel by his usual scriptwriter Augustina Bessa-Luis and played by his all-Portuguese cast of regulars in a genteel country setting, pic is a quintessential recap of Oliveira places, themes and paradoxes. Fans will enjoy the breezy, sardonic narration style he has developed into an art form and the amusing metaphysical banter underlying his work from “Valley of Abraham” on. That said, the film seems a step back from the invention and emotion of “Home,” less witty and more much more distanced. Circulation is likely to be restricted to true admirers.

In a fine country manor, the owners’ son Antonio (Ivo Canelas) and the housekeeper’s boy Jose Feliciano (Ricardo Trepa), who is absurdly nicknamed the Blue Bull, have been raised practically as brothers. But when marriage time rolls around, Jose’s childhood love Camila (Leonor Baldaque) chooses the rich Antonio without hesitation.

The Blue Bull takes up with seductive Vanessa (Leonor Silveira), the decadent madame of a disco-brothel, who soon has an affair with Antonio under the saintly Camila’s nose. Camila insists she doesn’t care if Vanessa takes over her house and husband, but she’s troubled enough to consult a cobwebby statue of Joan of Arc about what to do. The advice she gets is not very holy, and good and evil characters switch places in an unexpected conclusion.

As in all Oliveira films, the audience is led up the garden path over and over again in a deluge of playful dialogue of intellectual import which circles around on itself or concludes in aphorisms like, “The first stage of intelligence is goodness,” and “Civilization has not yet reached the first stage of intelligence.” All the characters are likely to come out with lines like these, but in the mouths of the two cultivated Roper brothers, Daniel (Luis Miguel Cintra) and Torquato (Jose Manuel Mendes), Camila’s teachers and defenders, they’re a little more motivated.

Fine character actress Isabel Ruth plays the housekeeper with tongue-in-cheek dignity, happily standing beside her masters’ table or kneeling at their feet. As Camila, Baldaque’s schoolgirl face is ambiguously noncommittal as she hears herself variously described as angel, witch, gold-digger, Madonna, bride of Dracula, mutant and “the family’s jewel.”

Most of the technical work is highly assured, especially cinematographer Renato Berta’s lighting, capable of warming up even the darkest over-furnished room with human life. Camila’s frequent trips to visit the Ropers afford postcard glimpses of Oporto, scored by a furious Paganini violin solo. Editing is leisurely to a fault.

The Uncertainty Principle

Competing / Portugal-France

  • Production: A Madragoa Filmes/Gemini Films/RTP-Radiotelevisao Portuguesa co-production. (International sales: Gemini Films, Paris.) Produced by Paulo Branco. Directed by Manoel de Oliveira. Screenplay, Oliveira in association with Jacques Parsi, Julia Buisel, Antonio Costa, based on the novel “The Family Jewel” by Agustina Bessa-Luis.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Renato Berta; editors, Oliveira, Catherine Krassovsky; music, Nicolo Paganini; art director, Maria Jose Branco; costumes, Isabel Branco; sound (Dolby Digital), Henri Maikoff. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 17, 2002. Running time: 133 MIN.
  • With: Camila - Leonor Baldaque Vanessa - Leonor Silveira Celsa - Isabel Ruth Jose Feliciano - Ricardo Trepa Antonio Clara - Ivo Canelas Daniel Roper - Luis Miguel Cintra Torcato Roper - Jose Manuel Mendes
  • Music By: