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Portuguese man of war

By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  March 12, 2008

Valle Abraao is a curious ignition for worldwide cine-fame: a three-hour-plus, self-consciously literary and hyper-rehearsed study of the Madame Bovary template in which a lovely young girl (Leonor Silveira) from an upper-class family subtly wields her beauty like a weapon and becomes a restless and unfaithful wife to a romantic doctor (Luís Miguel Cintra). Oliveira’s approach is kind of a Bresson/Buñuel bouillabaisse, stressing the stiff artificiality of his scenes, and the narration over the action (which describes dialogues and actions as they happen), while at the same time going for a sarcastic satire whose very flatness is part of the joke. Silveira (who like many of Oliveira’s actors appears in scores of his films, in parts large and small) has one of those amazing movie faces that seems to change from minute to minute, but her performance is held six inches away from conviction — as the narration informs us that she smiles “as if to bite them,” Silveira grins toothily in a risible manner that suggests Oliveira’s discontent with representation of all kinds. What we get from Valle Abraao is a kind of exhaustive study of bovarysme rather than its dramatic expression. Still, nothing obscures the disarmingly chilly moment when, during a tasteless dinner-party story, a crotchety aunt who’ll die in the very next scene turns slowly to the camera and gives us a mortified stare.

Of the subsequent deluge, the HFA’s series includes VIAGEM AO PRINCÍPIO DO MUNDO|VOYAGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD (1997; March 23 at 3 pm), a contemplative road movie that endeavors to address, if not to evoke creatively, the crush of 20th-century history on Portugal and, by extension, all classical societies. Marcello Mastroianni’s character — in essence Oliveira — explores a corner of Portugal’s undeveloped agrária with some young actors, and he’s given to spasms of reminiscence. Too often a lugubrious lecture (I doubt that peasants refer to the village they grew up in as “this lost corner of the world,” and I take lines like “It’s just like Sarajevo but without the bullets,” referring to an old ruin, with a dose of vinegar), the film seems the work of a slowing metabolism. The superior JE RENTRE À LA MAISON|I’M GOING HOME (2001; March 24 at 9 pm) is almost Hou-like in the way it allows action and revelation to enter the frame unannounced, and in its resolution to withhold dramatic information. Michel Piccoli, as a venerated actor, is seen sometimes performing with his back to us, or in one amazing sequence not seen at all — Oliveira keeps his camera trained on John Malkovich, as a pretentious director, watching. The subtractions unfortunately include the story’s tragic materials (multiple accident deaths), which are elided and seem to bother no one.

It comes as a surprise, then, to find that the older Oliveiras are thorny, surreally lyrical, and brimming with ideas. As we move back just a little, “NON,” OU A VÃ GLÓRIA DE MANDAR|NON, OR THE VAIN GLORY OF COMMAND (1990; March 27 at 9 pm) dares to pitch a heated and educated debate about war, colonialism, and “Sebastianism” (a belief in the Portuguese nationalist savior myth) among Portuguese soldiers mobilized to fight rebels in Angola — complete with flashbacks to Roman Empire battles. There’s no wondering about intent: it’s daring, impetuous, and actively engaged with the world. Oliveira’s first feature, ANIKI-BÓBO (1942; March 16 at 3 pm), was humbler, a Neo-Realism-meets-Our-Gang grade-schooler trifle (but weren’t the early Our Gang films Neo-Realist in their own way about Los Angeles’s poorer neighborhoods?), with a breathtaking nighttime idyll atop the roofs of Porto, a journey to the bedroom window of a beautiful girl.

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