The dean of helmers, 103-year-old Portuguese maestro Manoel de Oliveira, adds another striking entry to his ever-lengthening filmography with “Gebo and the Shadow.” The French-language adaptation of a Raul Brandao play, about a poor Lusitanian family awaiting the return of its vagabond offspring, offers a variation on the parable of the prodigal son. In a late-career standout, Claudia Cardinale limns the role of the impressionable mother, who’s been kept in the dark about her son’s nothing-to-write-home-about ways. De Oliveira’s name and sterling veteran cast will ensure plenty of sprocket-opera exposure, as well as some modest, mainly Euro theatrical runs.
Judging by the characters’ first names if not the language they speak, the pic is set in Portugal but in an unspecified era (Brandao’s modernist drama was published in the early 1920s) in which oil lamps turned everything a burnt-sienna after dark and the Euro hadn’t been created — though money problems were nonetheless at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Gebo (Michael Lonsdale, “Munich”) is a petty accountant who prides himself on earning a meager if honest living doing the books of a large company. His flighty wife, Doroteia (Cardinale), blames him for not having made his fortune, like his peers did, when he had the opportunity, though Gebo’s convinced that financial gain shouldn’t spring from dishonest acts.
It is an interesting paradox, then, that such a morally upright person keeps a huge secret from his wife, since Gebo’s never told Doroteia what has really become of their adult son, Joao, who left home eight years earlier. Though it’s never revealed how much Gebo exactly knows about Joao’s whereabouts or antics, it’s clear from the conversations with his daughter-in-law, Sofia (Leonor Silveira, de Oliveira’s fetish actress), who’s married to Joao, that they’re not telling what they know in order to protect Doroteia, who lives for the day she’ll hold her son in her arms again.
Pic’s first half is a talkative affair, entirely set in the living room of the spartan and damp laborer’s home where Gebo, Doroteia and Sofia live and occasionally receive visitors (Jeanne Moreau, Luis Miguel Cintra). Unsurprising for auds familiar with the director’s work is the stationary camerawork; the use of relatively sporadic, straightforward cuts; and the somewhat airless mise-en-scene, with the oil-lamp lighting and darkly dressed characters around the dinner table reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters.”
Cardinale registers most movingly here, as her emotionally complex yet artfully restrained performance makes it abundantly clear that this woman who grew up in poverty has, quite unrealistically, pinned her last hope at happiness on the return of her son.
This, in turn, explains the secretive behavior of the low-key but dignified Lonsdale as Gebo, and the affecting Silveira as the silently suffering Sofia, whom Gebo has come to love as his own daughter, only adding the chagrin of his wife. Though perfs and dialogue remain somewhat theatrical, the combined acting prowess of the trio ensures the emotions are heartfelt (no small feat, since once more, de Oliveira eschews closeups).
The film’s second half, which kicks off with the arrival of the vagrant Joao (Ricardo Trepa, the helmer’s actor grandson), is a little more problematic. Designed to upset the family’s fragile status quo, the character nonetheless feel anarchic for some of the wrong reasons, including Trepa’s thick Portuguese lilt in French and the fact the issues between mother and son lack a strong cathartic resolution.
Though Joao’s philosophy, “We all commit crimes, at least in our minds,” and Gebo’s admission that, “When money’s involved, there’s never any forgiveness,” are a bit blunt, they point in the direction of the material’s underlying, smart exploration of the ties between wealth, happiness and lies, which resonates just as strongly today, again affirming one of de Oliveira’s recurring themes: plus ca change …
The devastating yet logical closing scene is delicious in its poetic symmetry and irony. Occasionally used classical pieces include works by Sibelius, Busoni and Shostakovich.