Gebo and the Shadow (Gebo et l'Ombre): Venice Review

Old-school charm and expert performances elevate a somewhat creaky theatrical adaptation by the tireless centenarian Manoel de Oliveira.

French-Portuguese co-production from the world's oldest filmmaker Manoel de Oliviera is adapted from Raul Brandão's 1923 play, also known as "The Hunchback and His Shadow."

When it comes to current cinema, there is retro, there is old-fashioned, and there is Manoel de Oliveira, the 103-year-old from Portugal whose style hasn't changed that much through an utterly unique seven-decade filmmaking career. His latest, French-Portuguese co-production, Gebo and the Shadow (Gebo et l'ombre) thus offers a kind of time-travel for patient, older audiences willing to immerse themselves in a bygone universe.

The prominent presence of veterans Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau in the six-strong cast may ensure a wider level of appeal than is usually the case with de Oliveira, but this deliberately low-key theatrical adaptation faces a tough task to have much of a life beyond the festival circuit. World-premiering in Venice before a North American bow in Toronto, Gebo and the Shadow is released in France on Sept. 26 and Portugal the following day, at a time when the miraculously indefatigable de Oliveira continues pre-production on his next opus, The Devil's Church.

Raul Brandão's 1923 play, also known as The Hunchback and His Shadow, may not be particularly famous outside Portugal but according to de Oliveira was a key influence on Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. The big difference here is that the "Godot" figure, prodigal son João (Ricardo Trêpa), whose eight-year absence from the family home is discussed by his father Gebo (Lonsdale), mother Doroteia (Cardinale) and wife Sofia (Leonor Silveira) throughout the talkily repetitive early stretches, actually turns up at the end of the first 'act.'

It's not hard to see why the lad stayed away so long, with his nearest and dearest enduring what they describe as "terrible poverty" in an unspecified coastal Portuguese city (all the characters speak French) during an unspecified historical period that might be the 1900 or 1910s. Before João's entrance, de Oliveira evokes the suffocating, stultifying confines of the family dwelling all too convincingly, to an extent that requires considerable indulgence and attention from his audience. This investment is duly repaid in the second half after lively philosopher-criminal João makes his unexpected and spectacular entrance, theatrically espousing a nihilistic, Jean Genet-like credo of theft and amoral heroism ("I am he that causes suffering, and laughs," he brags.)

Trêpa copes OK with this very tricky role, but the trump card of Gebo and the Shadow is the ensemble of superb older performers who comprise the remainder of the dramatis personae. Particularly noteworthy is Silveira's subtly affecting and sensitively modulated turn as the abandoned wife, while it's refreshing to see a picture that ends with a dramatic freeze-frame rather that the sudden blackout that's become the modish conclusion for arthouse productions.

Is a production of unobtrusive, old-school professionalism on the craft side, with cinematographer Renato Berta's 35mm images rendered, in a rare concession to changing times, via digital intermediate. Berta captures the hazily soft glow of interior illumination from gas and candles, the results reminding us that Manoel de Oliveira is the only filmmaker on the planet who can actually remember what the light was really like in the 1910s.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production company: MACT Productions, O som e a fúria
Cast: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale, Jeanne Moreau, Leonor Silveira, Ricardo Trêpa, Luís Miguel Cintra
Director / Screenwriter: Manoel de Oliviera, based on the play by Raul Brandão
Producers: Maerine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Luis Urbano
Director of photography: Renato Berta
Production designer: Christian Marti
Costume designer: Adelaide Trêpa
Editor: Valérie Loiseleux
Sales agent: Pyramide International, Paris
No MPAA rating, 94 minutes.