‘Visit or Memories and Confessions’: Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A posthumous little jewel for Oliveira admirers

A long-hidden, personal doc about leaving a beloved house by the late, revered Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira.

His death last month, while he was still professionally active at the venerable age of 106, quite possibly made Manoel de Oliveira the oldest filmmaker to have walked the planet. Little could he have known back in 1982, when at the age of 73 he filmed a wry sort of “testament” and embargoed its public screening until after his death, that it would take another 34 years before audiences would get a glimpse of Visit or Memories and Confessions (Visita ou Memórias e Confissões). The unusual circumstances surrounding the film's making and unveiling are an enticement in themselves for the art distributors who have long been associated with the Portuguese director’s prolific output, though more than anything it seems perfect as a 68-minute festival tribute. Certainly his audiences will not be disappointed in the film, which he co-scripted with Agustina Bessa-Luis, who wrote all his films after the turning point of Francisca in 1981.

For a story revolving around the need to sell and move out of the house in Porto that he built and loved, where he wrote all his screenplays for forty years, there is little sadness about the film — though maybe some nostalgia. Oliveira’s ironic sense of humor turns the leave-taking into a humorous ghost story (“a film by me, about me”) as an unseen couple voiced by Teresa Madruga and Diogo Doria stumble onto the deserted property and trespass through rooms filled with books, paintings, souvenirs and memories. In the screenwriters’ typical style, their conversation veers into the philosophical and metaphysical at the drop of a hat.

The mood gets even lighter when Oliveira himself appears on screen. As the quintessential unreliable narrator, everything he says has to be taken with a grain of salt, and when he talks into the camera about the pressing economic need that forces him to give up his beloved house, he seems to be pulling our leg.

Yet as he narrates the story of his family with numerous juicy asides, the reasons emerge about why he was forced to sell the extraordinary house. Built in the 1930s style of a ship, with curving walls and gangways and big windows and round portholes looking onto an ocean of trees, this cozy intellectual nest was rudely violated during the years of the Salazar dictatorship. Oliveira had just completed his first full-length film, Aniki-Bobo, when the secret police barged in on him at home and dragged him away. There were no charges, but he was held in a cell and interrogated for ten days.

Not surprisingly, the Salazar government refused to finance his films, but more misfortune followed when democracy arrived in 1974. The Oliveira family factory was occupied by its workers and the director had to sell it to pay his debts. All this could have become a very maudlin story, were it not for the fact that it is recognizably an Oliveira collection of big ideas and minute observations, all edited together with apparent nonchalance. Mixed in with reflections on films, love, marriage, virginity and death is his personal confession about the place where his children and grandkids grew up and where he lived through illnesses, deaths, weddings and enormous financial difficulties — “but they didn’t affect my soul.” No, there are no shocking revelations here, but much insight into a unique European filmmaker who followed his own path with such energetic irony.

Production company:  Instituto Portugues de Cinema
Cast: Manoel de Oliveira, Maria Isabel Oliveira, Urbano Tavares Rodrigues, Teresa Madruga, Diogo Doria
Director, producer: Manoel de Oliveira
Screenwriters: Manoel de Oliveira, Agustina Bessa-Luis
Director of photography: Elso Roque
Editors: Manoel de Oliveira, Ana Luisa Guimaraes
No rating, 68 minutes