The Marsh of Many Endings: Tribute to Manoel de Oliveira

in 12nd IndieLisboa - International Independent Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

Manoel de OliveiraWhen a film has strong significance for a national cinema and its political context, seeing it with a local audience can give you one of the most tangible senses that this medium is part of humanity’s breathing life – the air in the theatre is dense with shared investment, and your spine becomes a tendril of something larger. I realised this five years ago in Transilvania, when the Romanian New Wave was at its apex, and the festival screened two contemporary masterpieces – Andrei Ujica’s archive-footage subversion of propaganda “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” (Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceausescu) and Cristi Puiu’s triumph of pitch-black existential naturalism “Aurora”. These startling experiences showed film as very much other than dead screen content – refracted through the life in the room they brought the exhilarating realisation of being within a culturally charged, era-specific moment.

I had the feeling again in Portugal last week. This time it was more to do with national nostalgia and transcendence. The IndieLisboa closing ceremony screened Manoel de Oliveira’s 1964 short “The Hunt” (A caça), in tribute to the man who before dying in April at 106 had been the world’s oldest active filmmaker, more prolific in his later years than ever, and a symbol that the creative spirit can be resilient far beyond any waves or vicissitudes it’s amid.

“The Hunt” was a breakthrough work in its day for de Oliveira, with an almost mythical, hypnotic aura infusing its vision of submerged but active menace and the helpless confusion of those with no recourse to banish it. Opening with the sound of a gunshot and dripping water, which instantly overlays the film with a feeling of unnamed threat or inadvertent accident, the film follows two adolescent boys as they go on a walking excursion from their small village to surrounding marshland frequented by hunters. As José leaves his house he doesn’t notice a fox killing a chicken – a random act of violence by a nature we come to understand is heedlessly riddled with such cloaked pockets. José does come face to face with a cows being cleavered apart in an abattoir – a more mechanised framework of slaughter whose designed intent does nothing to quell Jose’s disquiet. Whether or not humans are born to kill animals is mused on by Jose with his friend Roberto. They’ve heard it rumoured that some people don’t eat meat – an amusing moment for contemporary audiences so accustomed to vegetarianism as a commonplace of urban hyper-designed lifestyles, which flags up the gulf between now and younger days of modernity in an agrarian setting.

When the gloomy undertones of the film turn to outright darkly surreal tragedy, it’s clear that even as modern trains roar past, random threat can still impinge at any time, and that any streamlined technical triumph will largely be oblivious to it. Twilight falls on Roberto dragged down into a marsh sinkhole, as José’s panicked efforts finally bring a crew of locals to help pull up his black mud-covered form. With no method to fall to and a chaos of arguing, their human chain of linked hands is hardly a match for the primevally shimmering swamp. The deformed stump of the rescuer’s arm and the stuttering of the solicitous cobbler make dreamlike and symbolic their limitations, which mired in absurdity call forth no grace.

The short screened both endings of “The Hunt” – the first (restored only in 1988) the inevitable gloomy conclusion to this unequal flail against nature by inept society, and the second an artificially upbeat reassurance about solidarity demanded by the censors. Showing both endings together was both a succinct illustration of the engineering of art into propaganda, and a vehicle for considering essence, compromise and the muse of creative endurance.