Manoel de Oliveira, the world’s oldest working film director, who turns 106 this December, had the world premiere of his most recent work, the 19-minute short film “The Old Man of Belem” in this year’s Venice Film Festival.
The film is produced by Lisbon-based production house, O Som e a Furia , in co-production with the French distributor, Epicentre Films, that has distributed Oliveira’s films in France since 2008.
Screening in the 29th Mar del Plata Festival, the film includes hallmark features of a Manoel de Oliveira film, in which four characters meet in a garden and develop a profound exploration of what it means to be human.
Enigmatic, with a haunting score composed by José Luís Borges Coelho, the short is stripped to the bare bones of filmmaking – a discussion between four characters – but its strength lies in the power of its dialogue, although its themes will strike many as esoteric.
In the words of the film’s press release: “the glories of the past and the uncertainty of the future will be thoroughly discussed.”
Based on the novel, “The Penitent”, by Teixeira de Pascoaes, the poet is also portrayed in the film, accompanied by two other renowned Portuguese writers – the 16th century poet Luis de Camoes and the 19th century novelist Camilo Castelo Branco. These three icons of Portuguese literature interact with Don Quixote, the classic character from Spanish literature, originally penned by Cervantes in the early 17th century.
Both cast and crew are long-term collaborators of Oliveira, including cinematographer Renato Berta, editor Valérie Loiseleux and actors Luís Miguel Cintra (Camões), Ricardo Trepa (Dom Quixote), Diogo Dória (Teixeira de Pascoaes) e Mário Barroso (Camilo Castelo Branco).
The project was originally planned as a studio shoot, but Oliveira experienced health problems prior to the shoot and production was therefore shifted to the garden next to the apartment where he lives in Porto.
His long-term collaborators have revealed publicly that this created a family atmosphere for the film, but Oliveira considers that it was no different from his other productions (see interview below).
The film’s Portuguese title – “O Velho do Restelo” – refers to an old man who is depicted in Camoes’ epic poem about the Portuguese discoveries – “The Lusiads”.
As the ships set sail in search of unknown lands, the old man warns of impending doom and discourages them from their follies.
This character has entered Portuguese culture as a term to refer to all doomsayers who pour scorn on new endeavors.
However this character takes on special importance in this case, given the advanced age of Manoel de Oliveira and his own ambivalent attitude towards human ambition.
Oliveira has pioneered activities in multiple fields and is a key inspiration and godfather to many Portuguese filmmakers.
At the same time the theme of “defeat” has been a constant in many of his films, including titles such as “No, or the Vain Glory of Command”, excerpts of which are shown in the short.
Oliveira is reluctant to provide press interviews but agreed to answer a select number of written questions.
His answers are extremely short and concise but they nonetheless provide an insight into his creative process and his intention to keep filming.
This short film has been seen by some as your “farewell” to filmmaking. Do you have plans to make more films in the near future?
Of course I do.
What was it like filming in the garden behind your house? Did it mean that making the film was even more intimate, between friends?
It was no different from any other films I’ve made.
Is this short film – which includes excerpts from several of your other films – a kind of “overview” of your work?
I don’t ever try to produce an overview of my work. “The Old Man of Belem” is based on the novel by Teixeira de Pascoaes, “The Penitent”, and the scenes shown from some of my other films are solely used because of their link to this novel.
In the short, we see the Portuguese poet Camões who says that he wants to “Remember the greatest defeats, of which the Old Man of Belem evokes the finest examples.” Why are you so fascinated by the subject of defeat?
The Old Man of Belem foresees the defeats that come with victories, which we never thought about…
In your own case, as a pioneer in many fields, particularly in terms of cinema, do you feel that you’re affected by this spirit of defeatism, symbolized by the figure of the Old Man of Belem?
The Old Man of Belem is a Warning.
The short has been regarded as “a reflection on Portugal and its history”. Did you include the figure of Don Quixote because you believe that he represents another facet of the Portuguese people?
It’s much broader than that. The film is a reflection about Mankind.