04.02.17 – Portugal: The Mirror of Life

 

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“Cinema is a mirror of life. I believe that it is not one simple mirror, there is no other! Filmmaking is the only reflection of life! As well as being a reflection of life, it is also a record of life.”

-Manoel de Oliveira

It is late in the afternoon and the sun is at last starting to break through the mist and haze of another rainy overcast day along the Atlantic coast. It had taken me about two hours by bus and another three hours of wandering on foot, but I finally had made it to the place that was once considered to be the end of the world. According to the Legend of Nazaré, in the year 1182, Dom Fuas was out hunting near the coast, when he saw a deer which he then started to chase. The deer ran to the top of a cliff and he followed. The fog was so thick that he nearly walked off the edge of the cliff, but instead walked into a stray horse that was grazing near the edge. He believed that god had intervened in placing the horse there and named the place Bico do Milagre (Point of the Miracle). During the Middle Ages this point was considered the edge of the world and Fuas declared that no further miracles would ever take place beyond it. As I watched the furious waves and terrific swells punish the rock-face beneath the overlooking fortress, I could certainly begin to understand why the city of Nazare has been such a significant draw for thrill seekers, tourists, and seekers for nearly a millennia. In standing at the place where the world was thought to end and where the age of exploration began, Portugal’s sense of self as one of constant endings and new beginnings becomes overwhelmingly apparent.

I arrived in Porto two days earlier with the plan of working my way entirely down the Atlantic coast, first to Nazare, then to Lisbon, and finishing up at the port city of Sagres – where Henry the Navigator opened the world’s first cartography school. I sadly must admit that going into my trip, other than the brief interlude I offer to my history students on the age of discovery, I knew very little about the Portugal’s fascinating and dynamic history. Additionally, I must admit an even greater ignorance to the equally captivating history of Portuguese cinema. The next five days were certainly a journey of discovery which further enlightened me to what I must consider to be one of the friendliest, inviting, and stunningly beautiful parts of the world I’ve yet set eyes on.

My arrival in Porto conveniently coincided with my recent discovery of legendary director Manoel de Oliveira (1908-1915), himself a Porto native. In a career that spanned almost ninety years (1927-2014!) Oliveira was less a figure of flesh and blood, but a fixture as timeless as the rocks and ocean swells. His life story is a truly inspirational tale of drive and persistence that I closely identify with.

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Manoel de Olivera, circa 1930s

He attempted to make his first film when he was nineteen, an unfocused and overly ambitious project about Portugal’s role during the First World War. After a rainstorm destroyed the film equipment he rented from an exchange, his cast and crew abandoned him, and Oliveira was left with a substantial debt to repay the damages.

 

When I was nineteen I formed a small independent production company in my small university town in Pennsylvania. My involvement in local theater circles and the university’s communication’s department gave me access to all the tools I needed to bring to life a feature-length screenplay I had written called The Filmmaker. It was intended to be a super meta behind the scenes look into the challenges aspiring filmmakers face in the emerging digital era. This description sounds much smarter than the script actually was, but I still stand by my writing as a worthy effort for a would-be teenage filmmaker. I went through the motions receiving permission from my university theater to use for rehearsal space, cobbled together a cast and crew, and negotiated with several other local filmmakers to form a collective where we would work together to produce each other’s films. Exactly eighty years after Oliveria’s aborted effort to make his first film, I too experienced my own personal disaster.

Mirroring de Oliveria’s own experience, on the second day of what was supposed to be a three week long shoot to complete my first feature film, I planned to film an elaborate scene on an abandoned railroad bridge on the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border. I had neurotically checked and rechecked the weather for that day, knowing full well how unpredictable the summers can be in the American northeast. I don’t believe a lengthy explanation is necessary, but as you could probably guess the weather forecast was wrong, and I was left holding nearly $4,o00 worth of borrowed film equipment exposed during a torrential downpour, on a bridge in the middle of a half-mile wide river. In the time that it took to repair the rain-soaked equipment, my cast and crew moved on to other projects, my credibility as a capable artist was shattered, the film collective disbanded, and I spent the rest of my Junior and Senior years of college paying an installment plan to cover all of the damages. For some such an experience would likely have been taken as a sign to pursue another career, but I have continued to persist, and perhaps more inspiring, so did Oliveria.

A few years later in 1931, he continued to dabble in the cinema, and appeared as an actor in Song of Lisbon (1933), Portugal’s first talkie. He made his first directorial debut with a short documentary film, a genre that he would continue to work with for the rest of his life.  Yet it wasn’t until 1942 when he was thirty-four, that Oliveria attempted to direct a feature film again. Aniki-Bóbó (1942), was shot in real locations, with a cast made up largely of ragamuffins recruited from the streets of Porto (only the two leading roles were filled by professional actors). Although not recognized or widely distributed at the time of its release, later films scholars hailed this effort as an early precursor of the Italian neo-realism films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.

Now compare this short scene from Aniki-Bóbó to what is discussed in A.O. Scott’s overview of Rossellini’s landmark classic Roma città (1945).

Discouraged,  de Oliveira withdrew from filmmaking for fourteen years, concentrating instead on farming, viniculture and other business projects, many of which failed. He resumed his film-making career in 1956, after traveling to Germany to study new color techniques. The Artist and the City (1956) was another 45-minute documentary about Porto as seen by the artist Antonio Cruz. Once more his inventiveness and fascination with his hometown as a subject shines through in a very powerful way. Below is the first half of de Oliveria’s return to filmmaking and a wonderful showcase of the jaw-dropping infusion of past, present and future that Porto has to offer.

Later in life, de Oliveira was to divide his career into two phases. The first, which he called “the stage of the people”, ran from 1931 to 1971. It consisted mainly of documentaries and realistic dramas of the life of the poor and downtrodden. Although the second phase of his career is where his greatest works would come into the popular consciousness for the first time, I am at this time too far removed to see how far-reaching the mirror of our lives will ultimately extend. What I can certainly appreciate from examining the struggles that emerge from the first four decades of his life, is his emphasis on recreating the truth to be found in every-day life, as well as addressing a number of socially conscious subjects that represent what he described as “parables of human solidarity.” It is the humanism in his early career that I would most like to emulate.

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Unfortunately time and budget caused me to have to abridge my overly-ambitious tour of Portugal. So after my moment of transcendence along the cliffs of Nazare, I decided to head to Libson and forgo the last leg of my trip down to Sagres. I had previously underestimated just how much there is to do and see in these Portuguese cities, so instead of rushing from destination to destination, I figured it would be best to spend my time truly absorbing one place instead of many. Once again, I have to plead ignorance in terms of knowing many films based or set in Lisbon. The only one that readily comes to mind is Wim Wender’s Lisbon Story (1994). Just as with Porto and Nazare, the landscape, architecture, people, food, and drinks were all consuming and too rich for me to process in the short time I had to explore. In Lisbon Story, Wender’s does some of his greatest work in terms of capturing each of the city’s many offerings.

As a compendium of the filmmaker’s esthetic and emotional predilections, the gently drifting Lisbon Story works better as a companion piece to Mr. Wenders’s other work than as a free-standing invention. Yet perhaps because of its complete immersion in warmly inviting city scenes, the seductive Portuguese sound of a musical group called Madredeus and an explicit reverence for the magic of cinema, Wenders has calls this his most entertaining film. Lisbon Story was financed by the City of Lisbon and commissioned as a work of civic boosterism, albeit one of exceptional contemplativeness and emotion. After committing himself to this setting, which he clearly knows intimately and affectionately,  Wenders was enthralled by the haunting music of Madredeus and made those sounds equally integral to his film. The third element was cinema, and so Lisbon Story has the pretext of summoning a sound engineer to Lisbon to complete a friend’s unfinished movie. With camera equipment ranging from video to antique invoked throughout the film, also to tries to make sense of a nation’s unique and aspirational filmmaking tradition.

As for my own Libson story, what stays in my memory the most is the experience of sitting on the grassy mound of Miradouro Santa Catarina, watching the fire fade out of the evening sky, listening to the sounds of guitars and singing and the chatter between friends—tourists and locals alike—all around me. Eating bolinhos de bacalhao and drinking red wine as I listened, all of Lisbon was spread out below before us. If every city has a signature sound, then Lisbon’s is the sound of jamming musicians on guitars. In this sense I feel that Wim Wenders had prepared me quite well for my Lisbon experience.

Following the 1755 earthquake which devastated the city and indirectly brought about a prolonged period of national decline which resulted in a serious of foreign invasions and reduction of national prestige, the city of Lisbon still managed to hold to and maintain its sense of civic pride and unique festive identity. It is still very much a city of enlightenment and discovery. Despite the greater stability that emerged following the 1974 revolution the nation still treads through a very precarious political and economic situation, yet this balance of of progress and regression presents a fascinating national culture, which I look forward to further examining through the lens of cinema.

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