Manoel de Oliveira, the oldest living active filmmaker, with a career that spanned nine decades from the silent era to the present, has died. He was 106. News of Oliveira’s death was confirmed on the website for the city of Porto, Portugal, where the director was born in 1908.
As impressive as his longevity was, Oliveira is most highly regarded as the dean of Portuguese cinema and the filmmaker most responsible for heightening the prestige of his country’s film culture on the world stage.
His work drew considerable accolades — he received no fewer than 12 career achievement prizes from major film festivals, including a career Venice Golden Lion and a special jury prize (for 1991’s “The Divine Comedy”) as well as a Cannes jury prize for his 1999 film “The Letter” — but distribution of Oliveira’s films, especially in the U.S., was relatively limited given his well-honed practice of adapting highly literary texts, often directing actors for extreme theatrical effect and giving the spoken word equal status with the image.
For his champions, his striking output since especially the early 1970s placed him at the top of auteur royalty, an appropriate image for an artist so fascinated with the machinations and delusions of elites and (Portuguese) kings.
Oliveira had completed only two features by age 55 but subsequently made 29 by the time he was 102. Even more unusual is that one of these films, “Memories and Confessions,” was not to be publicly shown, by the director’s expressed wishes, until his death — meaning that a new Oliveira film may be soon unveiled. The director’s most recent film, “The Old Man of Belem,” premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
Born in the northern Portuguese city of Porto, Oliveira grew up in privileged surroundings as the son of an industrialist. His father’s accomplishments included launching an electric energy plant and producing the country’s first electric light bulbs. During the 1974 Portuguese revolution, the plant was occupied by leftist opponents of the fascist regime and subsequently went bankrupt; Oliveira lost much of his wealth, including his longtime home. Ironically, the director had been previously arrested by the same regime, whose censors and film funders foiled almost every one of his many attempts to launch projects from the 1930s to the early 1970s.
Schooled by Jesuits and showing an early interest in art, Oliveira was also a first-class athlete, making a name for himself in diving, racecar driving, pole vaulting and trapeze. Before he dropped out of college, he drank up the films of German, American and Russian film masters from Eisenstein to Max Linder and then tried his hand at acting in films including the first Portuguese talkie, “Lisbon Song,” in 1933.
Two years before, he made his first film and probably still his most widely seen short, “Labor on the Douro,” influenced by the so-called city symphony films of the era. (A freshly altered version was unveiled in 1994.) Tending to family business — and later, his wife Maria Isabel’s family farm and his racecar interests — Oliveira found it next to impossible to produce any of his scripts during the era of dictator Salazar’s “New State” rule, making only two features between 1942 and 1971: the childhood drama “Aniki-Bobo” and the half-documentary/half-fiction “Rite of Spring.”
“I was engaged in a long process of reflection,” Oliveira said in a 1992 interview about this period. “I gradually became aware of what I wanted to do … After (“Rite of Spring”), I became aware of the nature of cinema, the value of language.”
During the ’70s, when most of his peers were close to retiring, Oliveira’s great film work began, with a remarkable quartet on ill-fated love (“The Past and the Present,” “Benilde or the Virgin Mother,” “Doomed Love” and “Francisca”). The latter three represent Oliveira’s ongoing interest in adapting the work of major Portuguese authors Jose Regio, Camilo Castelo Branco and Agustina Bessa-Luis and are now considered to be among the director’s most important films.
“Doomed Love” marked Oliveira’s breakthrough work with European critics, as well as his first exchange with Paulo Branco. Branco ran Paris’ Action-Republique theater, where “Doomed Love” screened, and then produced all of his films from “Francisca” until “The Fifth Empire” in 2004.
By 1985, when Oliveira made his ambitious, nearly seven-hour adaptation of Paul Claudel’s rarely staged “The Satin Slipper” (still his least-seen major film), he was making a movie nearly every year, spanning a huge range of subjects and styles, including epic and intimate reflections on Portuguese history (“No, or the Vain Glory of Command”), an inventive adaptation of “Madame Bovary” (“Abraham’s Valley”), black comedy (“The Cannibals”) and self-reflexive storytelling (“My Case,” “The Divine Comedy,” “Inquietude”). He continued to win plaudits and new fans, as with his 2010 Cannes triumph “The Strange Case of Angelica,” which he had originally written decades before.
Many of his films strip away the “fourth wall,” revealing the process of filmmaking itself, with actors directly addressing the audience. Though he was raised in the silent era, Oliveira developed an intense interest in sound: “Since the advent of sound cinema and the possibility of using speech and sounds, things are easier, more beautiful, more expressive.”
With growing critical acclaim, Oliveira was able to attract international film stars to his projects, many on a regular basis, like John Malkovich, who co-starred in three films, “The Convent,” “I’m Going Home” and “A Talking Picture,” the director’s much-discussed response to the events of 9/11.
De Oliveira’s French-language period drama “O Gebo e a sombra” (Gebo and the Shadow), starring Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau, was released in 2012, a year in which he also helmed segments of the films “Mundo Invisivel” and “Centro Historico.”
Oliveira is survived by wife Maria Isabel; four children; and several grandchildren including actors Ricardo Trepa and Jorge Trepa.