The remarkable Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who died in 2015 at the age of 106 and made movies right until the very end, often seems to me a film-maker from a statelier, almost pre-cinematic era: an epistolary director or manuscript-culture director. Here is what could be called his testamentary film, a personal cine-memoir or cine-meditation. It was shot in 1982, but withheld from release at the director’s request until after his death, which would be much further off than anyone imagined. It has only now found a release in the UK.
How amazing to think of a movie director with the restraint, the unworldliness and indeed the prestige to get a film funded that wouldn’t be shown and wouldn’t get the normal commercial return for some years. It is entirely characteristic of Oliveira to make a film to be locked away, like a secret poem. This is really a home movie (of sorts) set in his splendid house in Porto, shaped as if to resemble a ship. Two unseen visitors roam around it, musing on history and philosophy, and Oliveira himself, a little stiffly but calmly and frankly addresses the camera about his family history and his own life, which was far more dramatic than you might expect.
Under the Francoite rule of António de Oliveira Salazar in the 1960s, Oliveira was arrested by the secret police for his anti-government speeches and held in brutal conditions in jail for some weeks (Oliveira intriguingly dramatises this moment in his life, and it is like a vivid dream breaking into a documentary). After the socialist revolution of 1974, workers occupied the textile factory established by his father and earnestly maintained by Manoel himself despite his lack of interest in the business: it became ruined and much of the family property had to be sold off.
Oliveira reflects on his love for his wife, Isabel (poignant wedding photographs from 1940 are shown), and on his own rather conservative, platonic ideas of womanhood. He also shows us the heavily furnished and old-fashioned but nonetheless charming rooms in which he says his films were written – and this setting is entirely appropriate. Clearly, Oliveira sees this house as an emblem of his life and mortal existence, soon to vanish. “Even St Peter dreams of closing the gates of heaven and turning out the lights,” he muses. But the lights were to stay on for decades.