Manoel de Oliveira's "Visit, or Memories and Confessions": Magnolia Blooms Twice

Filmed in 1981 when he was 73, yet shelved until after his death, "Memories and Confessions" has become a kind of talisman for the director.
Boris Nelepo

The ghosts did not take long to present themselves. Oliveira's seventh feature, Visita ou Memórias e Confissões, conveys a bevy of autobiographical musings on his family house and himself. Filmed in 1981 when he was 73, yet shelved voluntarily until after his death, Memories and Confessions has since become a kind of talisman for the director, an n+1 variable where the n is his 31-item back catalogue cut short last year. The first character introduced in the movie is a magnolia that blooms twice a year—first in "a rapid blossoming," then in the shape of "a rare star of maturity."

Conveniently, the film's structure comprises just what the original title enumerates: a visit, some memories, a handful of confessions. The visitors in question are a man and a woman whom we do not get to see but whose voices we keep hearing off-screen. As they drop in at an empty house they hesitate to enter at first, but the door swings open by itself to let them in. Where do they come from, one wonders, from the past, or the future, or someplace out of time? In childish fear of getting caught by the master, the angel-like guests quip that even Saint Peter sometimes wishes he could close the gates and turn off the lights. "We live everywhere, but we only inhabit that place where the four realms of the human edifice come together: Saving the world, accepting heaven, awaiting the divine, guiding men." No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit. Written by eminent modernist Agustina Bessa-Luís, the dialogue is delivered in turns by Teresa Madruga and Diogo Dória (all three had first collaborated with Oliveira a year before, on Francisca). The couple is soon welcomed by a trio of trees, each embodying somehow the inscrutable mystery of hovering between heaven and earth. While the magnolia converses with the stars, and the silver pine pirouettes like a Javanese dancer, the crotchety palm tree stands sentinel at the doorstep. The last name Oliveira translates exactly to "olive tree."   

"Fiction is the true reality of cinema," says Manoel de Oliveira with a smile, looking us straight in the eye as the film shuttles between the illusory visitation to a dreamlike space of suspended time, and a more conventional documentary mode that allows the narrator to recount his family history in great detail. Though committed to filmmaking throughout his life, Oliveira also dabbled in architecture and agriculture, those two paths leading man closer to God, or to the absolute—a notion he frequently addresses in his ruminations. Designed in the 1930s by famed architect José Porto, by 1981 this building had been Oliveira's home for a good 40 years. It is here that he wrote his screenplays and raised his kids; there has been a death here, and a wedding, and two long illnesses. The filmmaker suggested his house be transformed into a museum of numismatics and a part of the University of Porto, but the government declined. No longer his property, it is now about to go into foreclosure.

In Memories and Confessions, Oliveira admits he has always been apolitical and avoided membership in any parties. During dictator Salazar's reign, however, he occupied an in-between position. On the one hand, born into a privileged class, he never opposed the regime directly and even lost his father's factory in 1974 in the wake of the Carnation Revolution. Of the latter, he speaks now with particular bitterness reminiscing how his father's prized possession, which he, too, had invested every dime into, was overtaken by the workers only to be soon abandoned and deserted. On the other hand, during the Estado Novo Oliveira's career in film was interrupted by numerous and lengthy hiatuses, so before the coup he had completed a mere three features in thirty years (Aniki Bobo, Acto da Primavera, Past and Present). It is to this day unclear why the gaps stretched so wide. Besides, Oliveira was arrested right after the Acto da Primavera's premiere in 1963, when the political police took him to jail in Lisbon to interrogate for ten days. In prison he met Urbano Tavares Rodrigues, a leftist writer and dissident who presumably went on to play himself in Memories and Confessions (Oliveira reenacts his arrest). Perhaps the film's most brusque statement comes when Oliveira appraises the Revolution calling it a time of great euphoria but also of confusion to match.

What does the filmmaker do? Why of course, he plays movies. Oliveira fires up his projector, and the reels are awhirl with his recollections. Among them is a trip to another house, his wife's. Visually, this footage is of a piece with the "main" part of Memories and Confessions, where the ghostly visitors roam round a strange domicile. Who are these visitors, then, and what position does it put us in as viewers at this moment? As we watch the footage we, too, step into their shoes and survey the timeless surroundings through their eyes. On their first visit, the guests stumble upon some family photos which they don't recognize. But portraits are never real. Later on, Oliveira shows us the same pictures spinning yarns of his parents and grandparents. Such is the sad lot of every photo album: to become a series of disintegrated images recognized by no one. We all treasure our phantom faces eternalized by photography. The stranger in Marlen Khutsiev's Infinitas (1991), passing by a sheaf of worn-out daguerreotypes, misquotes a Pushkin poem, to which the protagonist replies, "You speak as though you were his contemporary." Memories and Confessions unfolds to Piano Concerto №4 by Beethoven, a contemporary of Oliveira's grandfather's who played it only once in his lifetime.

Oliveira's visuals never fail to capture inanimate objects, such as sculptures, paintings, buildings, or even a trivial grapevine, as characters in their own right. Alas, film history is light on movies that have truly altered the way we read the world around us, but here, in Oliveira's testament, everything has a secret magnanimously to share. The visitors watch the pine tree dance again, this time from a balcony, and now they see the sea before them—the column suddenly looks like a mast; the mansion, a ship weighing anchor. Within this manor is encased a traveling through Manoel de Oliveira's time and space (his desk is cluttered with ships and seashells). Memories and Confessions tells the story of not one but at least four different dwellings. There is the "protagonist" house. The one Oliveira was born in. The house of his wife Maria Isabel, where André Bazin had once sojourned one year before he died (he was ten years younger than Oliveira, an aspiring filmmaker at the time). And finally, there is Tobis Portuguesa, Portugal's last film studio standing where Oliveira would shoot, on the heels of Memories and Confessions, his Satin Slipper—another movie that opens to a film projector rolling and a ship sailing on. In 2012 Tobis was shut down and auctioned off.  

There has been a plethora of houses in Oliveira's films that meant an enormous deal to their tenants: Past and Present (1972); Benilde or the Virgin Mother (1975); Os Canibais (1988); Abraham's Valley (1993); Magic Mirror (2005); Gebo et l'ombre (2012); but first and foremost, O Dia do Desespero (1991) filmed at Camilo Castelo Branco's house turned museum—an account of the suicide committed by the great Portuguese romantic writer. Now it is obvious that O Dia do Desespero served as a spiritual sequel to Memories and Confessions, where Teresa Madruga had been employed for the first time as a guide to a neglected abode.

Camilo Castelo Branco's portrait can be seen in Oliveira's study where he writes his screenplays. In fact, the whole universe of his films, whether already made, recently conceived, or as yet unknown to their own author, grows out of this mansion. By the staircase there hangs a painting of an artist and a piper; the mass of knotted days must be linked by means of a flute. It's a painting by Júlio Pereira from the times Oliveira cut his teeth as a filmmaker. Pereira was the brother of famous writer José Régio, whose works Oliveira returned to several times to adapt into films. The very same painting is the last image in the short "As Pinturas do Meu Irmão Júlio" (1965) dedicated to the painter. Furthermore, Memories... is teeming with reproductions of Mona Lisa, who accompanied the director through life alongside Dona Maria Isabel, his wife of 75 years. While incarcerated in a tiny cell, Oliveira would refuse all food but her homemade cookies. There is a soliloquy in Memories and Confessions on the actresses who fascinate Oliveira as they contribute their own innocence to the fictional women they portray. Walt Whitman writes in Leaves of Grass, "Women sit, or move to and fro—some old, some young; The young are beautiful—but the old are more beautiful than the young."

Someone once asked young Oliveira to take a picture of a dead girl, to keep it as a memento. Subsequently, he wrote a screenplay that had waited for 50 years to become, in 2010, The Strange Case of Angelica, a rare example of an Oliveira movie not based on a literary work. In Memories and Confessions, he mentions Angelica, which he believes he'll never be able to produce. But lo and behold, the dead girl suddenly smiles at Isaac the photographer. The Strange Case of Angelica overflows with suspended spaces that the director himself calls "a phantom reality": long takes of empty rooms; isolated buildings; a stark landscape sprawled behind the window. Basically, it contains everything the guests wandering around the house in Memories and Confessions observe, except back then we didn't know they were also watching Isaac, whose phantom would obtain a body in the 2010 film. In existence since time immemorial, the magnolia, however, was only granted a name in the 18th century. Oliveira says he loves life but doesn't fear death. For a filmmaker born in 1908 and brought up in a religious environment, death was never an abstract concept. He felt its physical nature, and nothing else, by his father's deathbed. "I'm disappearing," he says as the pictures recede one after the other, in a reverse chronological order, toward his childhood, sending him on one last voyage to the beginning of the world. What is this film, then, if not another house?

Translated by Anton Svynarenko

Thanks to Cíntia Gil and Rita Azevedo Gomes for their help and generosity

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