That Old Feeling
Jeff Reichert on Francisca
“The more I contemplate the spectacle of the world and the ebb and flow of change in things, the more deeply I am convinced of the innately fictitious nature of it all, of the false prestige given to the pomp of reality . . . the motley parade of costumes and fashions, the complex path of progress and civilizations, the magnificent tangle of empires and cultures, all seem to me like a myth and a fiction, dreamed up amidst shadows and oblivion.” —Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
“That shot is very Portuguese.” I made this remark to my television, a few months back, not long into a home viewing of Catarina Vasconcelos’s cubist autobiographical first feature, The Metamorphosis of Birds. My comment would seem to be self-evident: Vasconcelos is Portuguese; the film’s production company, Primera Idade, is based in Lisbon; her chosen examination is her family’s history in their homeland—how could any part of the film be not Portuguese? And if there were elements that weren’t Portuguese, what else might they be? The shot in question is almost painfully nondescript: an interior space, a piece of low cabinetry in the foreground, perhaps a hint of table or chair in the soft-focus distance, unadorned white walls, a splash of warm light from an unseen exterior source. The camera holds, and all of a sudden, a portion of the cabinetry doors opens and a young boy appears, uncrumples from his hiding place, and nonchalantly exits the frame. The closest I’ve made it to Portugal is Seville, just shy of a five-hour drive to Lisbon. Close, but not nearly close enough to lend the weight of authority to my categorization. Yet, somehow, to me, here was an image so obviously, quintessentially Portuguese that I felt compelled to say it out loud. My TV had no reply.
We humans deeply love organizing principles—taxonomies, categories, the dread repressive binary. They help us make sense of the world around us conceptually, intellectually, and these operations have physiological bases as well—separate eyes collecting separate pictures for our brains to combine and parse for threats and non-threats, paths to consider or avoid, Good Terminator, Bad Terminator, Neutral. To say that a single shot in a film is “Portuguese,” then, is to absorb a new set of stimuli into our nervous system that, as if pulled by a magnet, careens towards whatever obscure collection of neurons our brain has seen fit for storage of items related to our idea of that nation. I imagine this process as such: a freshly stamped library card catalogue entry wings its way through massed stacks of records housed in a cavernous space, and screeches to a halt by a drawer just opened by invisible hands. The card, home at last, performs an ebullient flip before sliding itself into place; in the instance of Vasconcelos’s composition, perhaps cozying a little closer to images gleaned from Miguel Gomes than Manoel de Oliveira, but not far! Assembled frames from Pedro Costa’s films nod at the new arrival from where they chain-smoke in the corner.
My more romantic pictorial notion of concept formation, of course, occludes the myriad cultural, historical, and biological biases that define how we make our individual senses of the world, and what the needs of this making sense of are anyway. (It is perhaps slightly outside the bounds of this investigation to poke at notions of what sense the world and culture at large makes for us without our consent.) To return to the shot of the boy in the cabinet: for me, it reads so clearly as Portuguese because it features a certain quality of the light that burnishes the image and confuses what time period the filmed object has been filmed in—the present becomes possibly past; the outmoded style of the furniture itself speaks of another age and place as well; and, almost important as that play of light, is the droll, wise, somehow literate humor of the child’s action. First there is old furniture and stasis, then there is a young boy in motion who has repurposed the aged cabinet for use in a silly game. First, we could not see him, and then we can. Isn’t it by now obvious just how Portuguese this all is?
To most reading this writing who are not me, Jeff Reichert, white, cis, male, born in the late 1970s in a nondescript South Jersey town, educated in Rhode Island, now living in Brooklyn and making films when able, my classification system probably remains…opaque. But perhaps some of you readers, familiar with Vasconcelos’s film, and maybe other films by Portuguese makers—the aforementioned Oliveira, Gomes, and Costa, but also Rita Azevedo Gomes, António Reis, Margarida Cordeiro, João César Monteiro, Paolo Rocha—might be able to begin to connect with my instigating comment and glimpse at what I’ve seen. But even if you can’t, even if you’ve not seen a film from Portugal at all (and it is a certain tendency of art cinema followers to rely on different kinds of groupings: by auteurs, by nations, by various “waves”), I imagine many of you will be able to connect with the mechanism at play here. How we apply old learnings to help make sense of the new ones, building vast mental edifices, useful, harmful, expansive, limiting, indifferent. How an accretion of individual aesthetic objects from across time can come together like the Voltron of my youth to act as synecdoche for a geographic and political expanse.
This is a long way to go to arrive at Manoel de Oliveira’s 1981 period masterpiece Francisca, but there is, I believe and hope, a method here, a reason to start at the end so as to arrive at the beginning and thus set out anew. Oliveira was my first and formative experience of Portuguese cinema, his so-called Tetralogy of Frustrated Love—Past and Present (1972), Benilde, or the Virgin Mother (1975), Doomed Love (1979), Francisca—primal texts for me in understanding his nation’s cinema, or, perhaps better yet: forming my personal understanding of his nation’s cinema. I first encountered these films as an impressionable and callow college junior in fall 1998 via a festival of Portuguese works organized as a collaboration between several departments at my school, including Modern Culture and Media, which heavily promoted the series to its students. He represented a perfect introduction given how large and long his influence has loomed over Portugal’s filmmakers.
If I’d heard of Oliveira before, then a miraculous 90 years old and still with 13 more features in him, I don’t remember it. But I did (and still do) love an ambitious artistic accumulation—trilogies, tetralogies, epic-length works. More, please! The idea of a nonagenarian filmmaker’s crowning achievement being presented on 35mm just a short walk from my dorm in the comfy-couched confines of the defunct Cable Car Cinema, was too much to pass up. Though as I make special note of the format here, I wonder if sensed the upcoming shift to digital, or just retroactively romanticize celluloid. Either way, I accordingly blocked out time for all four entries of the Tetralogy, two additional films by Oliveira, Voyage to the Beginning of the World from 1997 and his just-completed Inquietude, and two by an also unfamiliar director, João César Monteiro—Recollections of a Yellow House (1989) and God’s Comedy (1995). Oliveira’s seven-hour The Satin Slipper also screened, but without subtitles; I hesitated for more than a few minutes before deciding to write it off and still have some regret over this choice. My memories of attending this festival are so vivid, but I couldn’t, under threat of torture, name a single course I took at the time.
If the vagaries of distribution and availability of international cinema were different, more egalitarian, I might well be composing this piece about Inquietude, whose constantly shifting narrative terrain, spread across a tripartite structure, tickled an orgulous young man who wore an interest in narrative gamesmanship like a badge of honor. Similarly, Benilde, a mannered period melodrama that reveals in its final shot that its housebound performers had, in actuality, occupied merely a set of a house constructed on a massive stage, and the massively long, heavily texted Doomed Love, felt a bit more in line with my burgeoning, annoyingly oppositional set of likes and dislikes. Francisca seemed less overtly formally radical than those other three films, more akin to other period films I’d seen—more familiar, thus, lesser.
Thankfully, Francisca has been recently restored and re-released, and not for the sole purpose of proving to me, again, how wrong one’s younger self could be about so many things! (Films revisited after the passage of time can have that unique power to create a burning desire to throttle one’s past iterations and sometimes seem to reappear just when they’re needed…) I didn’t then—but can now—recognize a fully embodied expression of the playfully obtuse ideas of narrative structure and performance style Oliveira had experimented with in Benilde and Doomed Love, coupled with as withering a critique of its milieu as the more obviously realistic societal satire of Past and Present. It’s also opulent, romantic, serious, and silly, to boot.
Francisca tells the real-life tale of two young men who conspire to romance, with various degrees of forthrightness, the titular heroine, nicknamed Fanny (Teresa Menezes). José Augusto (Diogo Dória), a bored minor member of the aristocracy, and his frenemy, the writer Camilo Castelo Branco (Mário Barroso), author of Amor de Perdição, the source text for Oliveira’s 1979 epic, meet in various restaurants and gardens and decorously appointed rooms, discuss philosophy and politics, the state of their nation (set just after the Brazilian revolution and thus the end of Portugal’s period as a world power, one of the pair pointedly remarks that it is a nation that represents the “triumph of commerce over imagination”), Branco’s stalled writing career, and, more often than not, women. Fanny enters their consciousness via the periphery of their social circles but moves to the center once José Augusto finds Camilo calling upon her at her mansion outside of Oporto, even though the author has professed to want to conquer her only for sport.
Seeing his friend’s interest firsthand sparks a familiar masculine competitive impulse that finds José Augusto actively and aggressively wooing Fanny with a fervor couched in a grand romanticism he does not feel, but which he has clearly read about in books and desires to experience. She’s read the same books and is rather too easily convinced to risk scandal and run off, an ultimately successful escape that is hilariously bumbled in process by the incompetent suitor—once José Augusto has gallantly rescued her on horseback in the night, they wander lost in the woods until dawn, a simulacrum of chivalry crushed when confronted by the real. All will not be well with the couple once they’ve begun their new life together—it remains a relationship unconsummated and unpleasant, and then, after a miserable married existence, Fanny dies of tuberculosis. This allows for José Augusto to make the grand romantic gesture he’s strived for all along: he puts Fanny’s heart in a bell jar and keeps it in a shrine. Were Fanny able to witness this story from the outside, she’d probably be moved by the purity of her own suffering and death and her widower’s poetic devotion. Meanwhile, at a familiar taberna, men of José Augusto’s questionable caliber gather to wonder at his undoing, convinced they’d never be so foolish.
The film’s first shot establishes the visual schema that is common in Oliveira’s later films, though I didn’t know this then: we see José Augusto, center frame, staring at us as a riotous ball splays out behind him. The camera holds, and he continues to look our way. There’s an emphasis on frontality throughout the film; the continually odd placement of actors looking rarely at each other and delivering their lines in monotone heightens an artificial quality to the built sets and lends a sense of fakeness even to environs that seem preserved within actual period mansions, making overt that this is all being put on for an audience. As in Doomed Love, lengthy text cards punctuate the visuals, furthering and dryly commenting on the narrative. Occasionally, Oliveira will replay the same scene from a different angle, almost as if he’d shot traditional coverage and then just decided to use each take as opposed to carving up space. And then, throughout, there is that light, golden, diffuse and glowing that makes interiors and exteriors, constructed and real alike, seem apart, somehow out of time.
Even the dialogue of Francisca feels exotic, sensual. The sound of the Portuguese language itself, vowels stretched and curled into one another making heretofore unknown combinations. The films introduced me to the idea of saudade—a kind of melancholic longing, a word that in pronunciation sounds exactly how I imagine it might feel to experience it. It would be two decades from Francisca before I’d open Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, but I marked this passage when I arrived at it and it seems apt now: “I have always experienced actual sensations less intensely than the sensation of having those sensations. I have always found my awareness of suffering more painful than the suffering itself.” A paradox that has plagued literarily minded young men like Francisca’s “heroes” since those of their ilk had the leisure of conceiving of themselves as such.
I attribute to Oliveira’s Tetralogy my ongoing love for cinematic artifice and frontal frames—Rohmer’s period dramas, late Fassbinder, Bresson, Parajanov, Sembene. In my remembrance of the Tetraology, the compositions were more baroque in Doomed Love and Benilde, but revisiting Francisca proved this a lie. His films hit me at the perfect moment: they looked and felt like nothing I’d seen before. And coupled with a milieu featuring louche writers who barely seem to write, lovers who clearly do not know how to love (but tried!), revelry that feels sepulchral—his films, though often set in the past, crystallized an idea that was impossibly urbane, literate, and enmeshed in a kind of sly textual play that I still associate with the idea of Portuguese art to this day. How is it that Oliveira holds his core love triangle up for ridicule, yet can break our heart simultaneously? Back then, because of how differently these films operated from other things I’d seen, how grand their canvases were, and the literature I could find that centered Oliveira’s importance to the cinema of his home country, I assumed that the elements that piqued my interest must necessarily be umbilically collected to some essential qualities of the Portuguese people. Though, two decades on, I suspect it was Oliveira’s age, perspective, and snaking career arc that were more operative.
The first and last Providence/Portugal Film Festival in 1998 will always be where I first met Manoel de Oliveira, a filmmaker I would follow assiduously until his death in 2015. It was also a time of my coming into the world of cinema at large, even if I didn’t quite know what that meant yet. A critic who I was then enamored of, Jonathan Rosenbaum, was flown into Providence for screenings at the festival—he was one of few who made it through the unsubtitled marathon entirety of The Satin Slipper. If memory serves, I sat in front of him during Doomed Love, but I was too shy to tell him I admired his recent piece on Saving Private Ryan and Small Soldiers. For some reason my dad may have been at the screening as well, watching an extended 16mm presentation with a single projector, a short break between each of the many reels. A program for the festival I discovered online suggests that Dave Kehr participated in a small discussion that I believe I attended, but he didn’t hold the currency for me then that he does now.
I remember also skipping out on the screening of Monteiro’s Recollections of a Yellow House because my girlfriend, deep in her biochemistry studies, was upset I was spending so much time at the pictures. I’m sad I missed it: that relationship didn’t last, and I’ve remained curious about the film since. The filmmaker’s God’s Comedy, which I’d seen earlier in the festival, discomfited and confused me deeply in ways that I couldn’t fully process as pleasure at the time. It is the story of a lecherous old ice cream maker (played with droll, comic timing by gaunt Monteiro himself, and that helped cement my emerging ideas of cinematic Portuguese-ness I was learning from Oliveira) conspiring to dunk a young neighborhood girl’s naked body in milk to produce his dream ice cream flavor. The audience chortled; I was scandalized, convinced none of this was supposed to be funny. I suspect all of our reactions were correct, which further suggests to me that this dimly recalled film might well be a masterpiece.
A few years later, 2002, firmly in ensconced in New York City, working in independent film distribution and on the cusp of co-founding the upstart publication you’re reading now: I remember, after a New York Film Festival viewing Oliveira’s The Uncertainty Principle (a screening that did wonders for my sense of superiority as I scoffed at the dozens who fled midway through), I joked to my companion about the film’s arch, odd disco scenes, which culminate in a group of men in cartoonish devil masks torching the venue while dancing to generic beats. There’s no way these scenes couldn’t be a failure—what would an ancient filmmaker understand of club culture? My friend replied, “Oh, I think Oliveira knows pretty well what he’s doing.” Of course, after time and reflection and more Oliveira films, I admit my friend was right.
Almost a decade later, 2013. Rushing to a Toronto Film Festival press screening of Gebo in the Shadow, with an industry badge around my neck, a farcical endeavor—not the film, but my breathless haste: the company I worked for then was unlikely to acquire an ascetic Portuguese stage adaptation, but I had to see it. I remember Manohla Dargis in the queue at the Scotiabank. She might have been chatting with Gavin Smith. At this point, I knew and greeted them both. How did I get here? I can recognize in all of these intersections with Oliveira (and others not mentioned: reviewing Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl; breaking a phone conversation with John Malkovich about a film I don’t remember to ask him about shooting The Convent; revisiting Doomed Love at MOMI) the aspirational element that led me to Oliveira, and, once there, hooked me on his films for years. Barring unforeseen circumstances, life was not going to land me in the role of a 19th-century Portuguese man of letters, but maybe there was a similar space to be carved out of the present day.
Perhaps my love of Oliveira connects as well to his physical similarity to my literate, urbane grandfather, who lived next door to me growing up and whose bald, smiling face was always so dear. Life, the continual arrival. So many of Oliveira’s characters seem both blessed and cursed by blindness to their surroundings, only to realize in retrospect where they’ve been, what they once had. What it all meant. Perhaps this is a Portuguese thing as well: once a world power, a discoverer, a historical force in spite of its small size, now relegated to an ancillary role in a creaky and possibly crumbling union of its former global adversaries.
I’m left now pondering why I have such intense recollections of a series of film screenings that took place over ten days in 1998. And somewhat abashed that Francisca, so clearly great in all the ways I’ve come to value, didn’t register for me in that time. It’s good to reconnect with it again. As we all, together, write and rewrite the ongoing history of cinema, learning from our mistakes (sometimes) and making new ones, missing the great films and often paying far too much attention to the undeserving, and always, always uncovering more and more work worth writing and thinking about, we should remember: question the rubrics and heuristics, the received and accepted wisdom, and be open to the power of the spontaneous telepathy of film viewing. For how else would a nondescript image of an interior space, a piece of low cabinetry in the foreground, perhaps a hint of table or chair in the soft-focus distance, send me to Portugal and back, after so long, to Francisca?