The Voice of an Old Master

in 60th Venice Film Festival

by Janina Kumaniecka

Manoel de Oliveira, a Venice Festival veteran, calls his film A Talking Picture (Um filme falado) a testament to ‘the fifth Rome, the utopia of the community of nations, comprising today’s Europe’.

The plot is three-pronged. The first one is a slow-moving lecture on the sources of the Mediterranean civilization, with on-site illustrations: the ship carrying Rosa Maria, a Portuguese university history lecturer, and her little daughter Maria Joana, sails along the coast from Lisbon down to the Suez Canal. Part Two is a debate in the ship captain’s mess: the participants (four liberated women and the skipper) express commonplace judgments about western civilization. They do that with a dose of exaltation. Remarkably, everyone understands everyone else even though each speaks a different language. The four liberated ladies represent France, Italy, Greece and Portugal. The skipper is an American of Polish origin, thereby symbolically linking the western and eastern extremities of Mediterranean civilization. Tantalizingly, De Oliveira names the captain Walesa, identical with the Polish union leader who contributed so tellingly to the reconfiguration of Europe in the two closing decades of the last century. Part Three is a brutal act, contradicting whatever the film told us thus far, undermining the notion of political correctness, unveiling its contrived nature. Now we come to grips with and begin to understand the rhetorical, perhaps artificial tenor in which Oliveira makes his characters speak. We understand the slow-moving, emotionless rhythm of the picture. Oliveira is an old man who has the courage needed to challenge our contemporary utopia – the ideology of pooh-poohing controversial issues and hoping they will somehow go away.

Even if – as we all hope – Oliveira’s message of the coming end of western civilization and the advent of a new Middle Ages is only a warning, this film is among the most important pictures shown at this year’s Festival.