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Portugese cinema in the 1980s showcased at Toronto Film Festival

Tearsheets: Kelley Alexander, Festival of Festivals, 70 Carlton St., Toronto, Ontario, CANADA

Suggested headline: Portuguese cinema in the 1980s and the films of Manoel de Oliveira showcased at Toronto Film Festival



Sep. 7-16.


EEACH YEAR THE Toronto Film Festival picks a country whose films are little known in North America and then shows a selection of films representative of the spectrum of that country's cinematic history and heritage. This year it was Portugal's turn.

In fact, the festival organized two Portuguese retrospectives this year because the works of one great filmmaker -- Manoel de Oliveira -- have practically defined international conceptions of Portuguese cinema for the last several decades.

His first feature film, Akini-B`ob`o (roughly translated as Abracadabra), is a delightful and very funny film about a group of children on the streets of a city called Porto on the banks of the Douro River. The film is told with narrative wit, poetic realism, and cinematic beauty. De Oliveira's direction is totally uncluttered and the story unfolds with eminently believable logic.

His next film was O Acto da Primavera (Act of Spring, or The Passion of Jesus), a fairly straightforward production of the Passion Play that suddenly ends with a furious montage of images that parallel the wars of modern history with the crucifixion of Jesus. This ending creates a moment of interest in an otherwise conventional film.

Passado E O Presente (Past and Present), made nearly a decade later, was considerably more successful. It's a scathing and satirical film about a woman named Vanda (played by Maria de Saisset) who continually abuses and insults her second husband. Her friends are all self-absorbed society snobs. The mannerisms, conversations, and decadence of the idle rich are relentlessly satirized by de Oliveira and his camera.

In the 1980s, de Oliveira became more interested in both history and theater. An example is Le Soulier de Satin (The Satin Slipper), a seven-hour film made for television in 1985 that was edited to 169 minutes for theatrical release. The film documents a production of Paul Claudel's play about a Spanish conquistador who is unable to consummate his love for a noblewoman and who eventually overcomes his earthly desires by finding spiritual salvation.

Because this is a filmed record of a theatrical performance, it represents reality twice removed, and de Oliveira's merging of cinematic and theatrical techniques points out the artifice inherent in both stage and film. The film's exploration of Catholic philosophy is also interesting,

but nothing warrants the extremely long running time.

Much more palatable is de Oliveira's newest film, Non -- Ou a V~a Gloria de Mandar (Non -- Or the Vain Glory of Command), which was completed in 1989 and concerns a group of Portuguese soldiers being transported on a truck during the Angolan war. The men begin wondering about why they are still fighting colonial wars in modern times, and soon one officer begins telling them fascinating stories about famous battles waged by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century that led to the establishment of the Portuguese empire.

Effortlessly cutting back and forth between past and present, de Oliveira explores how these historical events influenced and shaped current reality, and the final sequences of the film powerfully portray how the single-minded pursuit of glory can victimize entire peoples.

De Oliveira is respected throughout Europe as the father of Portuguese cinema. His long, illustrious career, and particularly his steadfast refusal to compromise his art in any way, inspired a whole new generation of Portuguese directors. In Europe, de Oliveira is revered as a cultural treasure, and the introduction to North American audiences provided by this retrospective is long overdue.


In one of the great ironies of international cinema, the films of de Oliveira

and other Portuguese directors have, as a whole, been generally ignored by popular audiences within Portugal itself. However, since the 1974 revolution, the central government and other organizations have supported film production as a cultural imperative. As a result, Portuguese directors have largely remained free from commercial pressures and have been able to pursue their own interests.

One excellent example is Pedro Costa's 1984 film O Sangue (The Blood). The film tells an elliptical story of young Nino and his older brother Vicente attempting to bond together after their father mysteriously dies. Their world is shattered when the brothers' uncle forcibly takes Nino away to adopt him. The bulk of the film is devoted to increasingly eerie encounters as the two brothers try to reunite with one another. Primarily achieving his desired effects through high-contrast black-and-white photography, Costa demonstrates his tremendous talent for shaping cinema to his will. Without a doubt, this is one director whose future works should be awaited eagerly.

Another example of how Portuguese directors have pursued their individual visions is Jo~ao Botelho's 1985 film Um adeus Portugues (A Portuguese Farewell). The film movingly reflects the efforts of a family to come to terms with the death of the oldest son Augusto, who was killed while fighting in Angola 12 years earlier. A mood of sadness permeates almost each scene in the film, in many ways analagous to the cathartic experience of American families who find solace at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Other Portuguese films were featured in the Toronto retrospective, but these two films were perhaps the most notable. As the retrospective made clear, Portuguese cinema is well on its way toward establishing its international reputation.