Keeper of the Flame
by Max Nelson
Gebo and the Shadow
Dir. Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France
It has become obligatory to talk about each new Manoel de Oliveira film by observing how remarkable it is that there is a new Manoel de Oliveira film. For decades, Oliveira has been the elder statesman of Portuguese cinema. By 2012, when he completed Gebo and the Shadow, his latest feature, he had become something like an elder statesman of cinema, period, having passed his own centennial four years before. If his most recent films have tended to turn critics temporarily into carnival barkers—“Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and see the 105-year-old filmmaker!”—it’s perhaps because they are so clearly the work of an artist testing out different ways of making an exit. As such, they often feel like dead ends, allowing for few further developments both formally (their visual language is strikingly simple, bare, whittled down) and philosophically.
His last three films—Gebo is preceded by 2009’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl and 2010’s The Strange Case of Angelica—have been brusque, stiff, and thick-skinned. All three move at roughly the same odd rhythm, abrupt and efficient in their deployment of narrative information but languid in their movements and stately in tone. Oliveira’s troupe of recurring actors—including Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra, and Ricardo Trêpa, all of whom appear in Gebo—rarely soften, deepen, modulate, or fine-tune their voices when they address one another. Instead, they proceed at the steady, even tempo of performers in a staged reading, only occasionally interjecting a sudden gesture or outburst of emotion. Likewise, the visual language of Oliveira’s recent movies is carved-down, simple and precise, heavily reliant on long, static takes and theatrical, overtly presentational camera setups. Each of these films could be taken as a kind of back-to-basics exercise, an attempt to make do, in a period when seemingly infinite importance is attached to technological innovation in the movies, with early cinema’s simpler, narrower expressive vocabulary.
This tendency is especially strong in The Strange Case of Angelica, which reflects explicitly on the mechanical origins and miraculous effects of the photographic image and, in the process, makes a few thinly concealed references to Oliveira’s earliest work. (The extended scenes of Trêpa’s melancholic protagonist photographing field workers out of an attraction to “old-fashioned” labor echo Oliveira’s 1931 documentary Labor on the Duorno River, a film as manic in its movements as Angelica and Gebo are deliberate and poised.) But there is also a sketched-out, dashed-off quality to Oliveira’s recent films for which this explanation doesn’t fully account. It’s unclear whether to attribute this to the shifting standards of a filmmaker who has already made plenty of mammoth artistic statements and late-career testaments, or to the stubborn, diligent temper of an artist prodigiously advanced in age, working as a means of staying alive.
Gebo and the Shadow, which Oliveira adapted from the first three-quarters of a 1923 four-act play by Raul Brandão, is the most consistently, oppressively death-haunted of the director’s recent films. Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) is an elderly company man who lives in a small, gloomy house with his fragile wife, Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), and their abandoned, dutiful daughter-in-law (Silveira). Their son, João (Trêpa), a handsome young man with a temperament somewhere between those of Rimbaud and Raskolnikov, left home years before for a life of petty crime, a fact that Doroteia, still pining for his return, refuses to accept. In the movie’s opening shots, João—trailing a long shadow behind him—wanders off a dock at dusk back into town; walking alone through the city streets at night, he sees a pair of disembodied hands reach towards him out of the murk and runs off in slow-motion like a man accused. (“It wasn’t me!”) In the next shot, the action shifts to the home of Gebo and Doroteia, which—with the exception of one brief excursion to the street outside—it never leaves. Eventually, João returns home, only to lash out against the trio for living too cloistered and dreary a life. When the need to rebel becomes too much for him, he commits a sudden act of betrayal that both dooms Gebo in the eyes of the law and places him in a new moral relation to his family.
This skeleton of a plot is filled out by a set of extended spoken monologues. The cast of six—for a stretch midway through the film, the two couples are joined by a third played by Cintra and a nearly unrecognizable Jeanne Moreau—take turns airing grievances, fretting over money and turning on one another with petty accusations, rarely budging from the same seated post behind a table directly across from the camera. For the length of the film, the only source of light is a single, sputtering candle in the center of the frame; it never reaches the far corners or back wall of the room, rendering much of the movie’s space murky and indistinct. As time passes, the fact that the candle continues to burn ends up rivaling—and arguably surpassing—the characters’ infighting as the movie’s chief source of drama. By so severely restricting the space in which the film’s action can take place, and then making our ability to see that space depend on such fragile, unreliable means, Oliveira puts the seeds of worry in our minds: the worry that at any second our connection with the figures onscreen might be broken; that all of a sudden they might lose whatever presence they have for us. Just as the central drama in certain literary stagings of death (Beckett’s The Unnamable or, more recently, David Markson’s Vanishing Point) is that sentences continue to follow on one another (until, of course, they don’t), much of the drama in Gebo comes from the mere fact that image continues to follow image. All they have to sustain themselves, after all, is the light of a single thin, wheezing flame.
On some level, of course, we know how long the film will last, in the same sense that we know how many more pages we have left in The Unnamable. What’s remarkable is the extent to which Oliveira manages to keep us uneasy about the movie’s continued survival, or unsure of our ability to predict its end. The key choice here was, perhaps, the casting. It was a pointed gesture on Oliveira’s part to center this particular film around the presence of two elderly actresses remembered in part for being stunningly beautiful. Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau are asked less to act than to simply present themselves to the camera; in Oliveira’s pared-down, aggressively frontal mise-en-scène, they take on the look of sculptures in an exhibition. (The same is true of Michael Lonsdale, but he has always slightly resembled a wax sculpture.) We are left—or invited—to project our memories of them at their youngest and liveliest onto their present selves. There is a similar device at work in some recent films by Claire Denis (The Intruder) and Richard Linklater (the Before trilogy), but Gebo’s clearest cinematic predecessor—in tone, effect, and, in a sense, cruelty—is Norma Desmond’s “waxwork” museum of aging celebrities in Sunset Boulevard.
In Gebo, the projection is not easy to make. It’s difficult to accept that this is the same Jeanne Moreau who sprinted down a Paris bridge in drag in Jules and Jim, or the same Claudia Cardinale who showed Marcello Mastroianni he’d met his match in 8 ½. An inability to accept these facts is really a kind of unconscious refusal on our part to come to terms with time’s passing, or at least to acknowledge its visible effects. And this line of thought, pursued any further, is likely to lead us back into doubt over our ability to fix or predict endings, whether they be for people, candles, or films.
Midway through Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, the narrator joins a cross-section of Lisbon’s literary upper crust at a reading of a poem by Alberto Caeiro, one of the most prominent invented “heteronyms” of the great 20th-century poet Fernando Pessoa. In the poem, the speaker is visited by “a man from the cities” who tells him about “justice and the struggle for justice / the workers who suffer…and the rich who only turn their backs.” The speaker starts weeping, and the man is gratified. “But,” the speaker tells us in an aside, “I was scarcely listening to him.”
What do I care about people
And what they suffer or suppose they suffer?
“All of the world’s trouble,” he continues, “comes from us fretting over one another / whether it be to do good or do evil.” “What good is a sunset,” he asks when the young man turns towards the horizon, “to a man who hates and loves?”
For a film so committed to dramatizing the persistence of life at its most threatened, Gebo often maintains a Caeiro-like detachment from the passions and commitments that define its characters’ lives. For most of its runtime, it’s a film that conceives of life as simply the avoidance of death, refusing to ask what sorts of interpersonal attachments and private projects come with the package. It is only in its last shot that the film begins to imply there’s a difference between the questions “What does it mean to live?” and “What does it mean not to die?” At daybreak, a police squad ready to blame Gebo for his son’s crimes flings open the door of the couple’s house. Light fills the room, Gebo stands up, makes a false confession, and grips his wife’s hand. It is his first real display of affection in the movie—throughout, he has given his wife and daughter-in-law something of a cold shoulder—and our first indication that he is capable of self-sacrifice. The flood of light that accompanies this gesture suggests that a man’s world is illuminated to different degrees—or, put differently, that a man possesses life to different degrees—depending on whether, or how, he hates and loves. The film ends on a freeze-frame in this moment of ambiguous triumph—a visual equivalent of Beckett’s anguished “I can’t go on I’ll go on.”