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The World Is Your Cloister: Close-Up on Manoel de Oliveira’s “The Convent”

Starring Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich as a bourgeois couple touring a sinister old convent, Oliveira’s film thwarts expectations.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Manoel de Oliveira's The Convent (1995) is showing November 29 – December 28, 2018 in the United States.
The Convent
One good way to define the Portuguese word “saudade” is to imagine a movie with Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich as a bourgeois couple touring a sinister old European convent, then compare your expectation with what director Manoel de Oliveira made of that scenario in his 1995 film The Convent. That poignant feeling you get from the contrast—a serenely thwarted hope for what this movie might have been, a yearning so deluded that it actually feels good—well, isn’t that quite the essence of saudade?
Widely hailed as boring, The Convent might not make anybody’s shortlist of the most inviting Oliveira access points, but it is representative (with patience, boredom can be useful, even mystical), underscoring an idea that the impressive thing about him has to do with endurance. Aside from being pretty much the official auteur of Portugal, Oliveira also was, until he died in 2015 at age 106, a film artist whose career spanned nearly the entirety of cinema history. He’d been one of those directors who made movies once a year, and before that also one who made movies once every ten years. This movie in particular came about during a period described by Dennis Lim in Artforum as “an extended twilight that was also an artistic prime unlike any other,” which might sound like the damnation of faint praise but also nicely indicates the headspace required for safely entering The Convent
No, not a pitch-black domestic farce after all, this, and hardly a horror film. In good conscience you couldn’t even really call it a thriller. The action consists mostly of characters standing around and glancing at each other or into the distance; the dialogue consists mostly of them ruminating aloud in each other’s impassive presence. (Being Deneuve and Malkovich, the leads make hypnotically short work of this.) As a religious inquest it’s neither ascetic, adoring, nor in any obvious way confessional. But once ensconced within its stately melancholy you’ll notice—with pleasure, if you’re inclined and attuned to it—that as a movie it is inevitably and steadfastly Oliveiran.
The pretext of the couple’s trip is research. He’s here to have a dig through the convent archives, ostensibly to substantiate his theory that Shakespeare was in fact a Sephardic Jew. She’s here for a jaded sort of moral support, and to catch the eye of the convent’s suavely Mephistophelean caretaker (Luís Miguel Cintra), who offers the professor a lovely young archivist (Leonor Silveira) for research assistance and whatever else might make her a good trade for his wife. 
This could go any number of ways, and Oliveira calmly forfeits them all. He has a wizardly gift for shrugging off expectations. In a pre-determined plot, where would be the mystery? Undoubtedly, forces of darkness do start to build—especially within the painterly chiaroscuro of that library, where the professor may or may not make an academic breakthrough, or a carnal one, but he almost certainly will ruin his eyes by trying to read in there. It’s also within this crepuscular space that Oliveira finds drama and subtle humor in the rhythmic wood-creaks of repeated returns from a chair to a bookshelf. Clearly this is where the truest substance is, and where The Convent most comes to life. 
Elsewhere, its stagings do sit rather oddly, somewhere between silent expressionist classic and brittle unintended camp. But that’s also a function of Oliveira’s legacy, such that you find yourself expecting this one film to look like a whole history of the medium, and to exude permanent value accordingly. Talking about your dreams is another thing people say is boring, but Oliveira recognized it as an essential cinematic technique. By holding fast to that insight, he ensured that it would outlive him, and there you have that happy-sad simultaneity which can’t be spoken of in any other way except as saudade.

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