Waiting for the Whole Sky All Diamonds

The first-ever manufacturer of light bulbs in Portugal, Manoel de Oliveira’s father died in 1932, nine years after Raul Brandão wrote a play called Gebo and the Shadow. In the year 2012 Oliveira turned the play into a film, making a grimy, dim oil lamp its legitimate character: elderly accountant Gebo burns the midnight oil in it as he plods away at his books. In an early scene, meanwhile, his wife lights the lanterns outside their house with a match. No one seems yet to have heard of electricity; the time setting is unclear; presumably, it’s the turn of the century.

Presumably. Oliveira’s Benilde, or The Virgin Mother (1975) opens with a title-card of this word to gradually lure us into a province of utter chronological disorder. This very same word has ever since been unchallenged as the most accurate description of the bizarre, atemporal effect that grows stronger in each subsequent Oliveira film. The matter-of-course bewilderment at his venerable age has, in the last twenty years, become somewhat of a banality: the world’s oldest filmmaker or not, he does merit consideration regardless of being a centenarian. And yet, what makes his vision so unique is, among other things, their coevality with cinema itself.

It isn’t even a vision per se—more of a resplendent ability to make every story unfold throughout the whole history of civilization (the precise word proposed by Raymond Bellour), all at once, rather than at a particular point of time. In The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), a movie written 50 years before it was shot, the anachronistic gap is preserved as intended, even though a photographer is highly unlikely to be assigned with taking pictures of a dead girl in an explicitly modern world of global recession and the Large Hadron Collider. The gap is bridged when the photographer goes to the Douro riverside to make snapshots of the workingmen there, just like Oliveira did in his debut short film, the silent documentary Labor on the Douro River (1931). All in all, this reiteration serves to illustrate the well-worn cliché of cinema as the perfect device of capturing time.

A scornful tale of slum-dwelling, unemployed deadbeats who envy the blind owner of the designated charity box, The Box (1994) starts with a preface: “Though it takes place in a popular neighborhood of Lisbon this film tells the age-old tale of social frictions throughout the modern world.” Gebo, basically, addresses the same issues, albeit in a different, early 20th century setting. As Jonathan Rosenbaum shrewdly observed, Oliveira rarely makes films about the underprivileged, choosing to shift his focus to the wealthy instead; and yet, a veritable “poverty trilogy” is now formed: Aniki Bobo, The Box, and Gebo and the Shadow (there is also Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, though, with an accountant for protagonist, money as subject matter, and a recurring motif of theft).

Oliveira is frequently, and undeservedly, accused of being a one-trick pony, rehashing his brand of affected theatricality over and over again; it is, however, no small feat to find, among over thirty pictures he has made thus far, ones with noticeable spatial constrains. The Box and Gebo are among those few, since any depiction of poverty, naturally, requires visual modesty and sparseness. A “mensal” film, as it were, Gebo uses a table as a stage, while characters come and go; The Box, also adapted from a play, might be labeled a “stairway” film that places its characters along the steps of a typically Portuguese ladder-shaped street. Gebo ends where The Box begins, as a wino enters the scene, a bottle in his hand. The Box is a sarcastic, slightly crude work of uncharacteristic physiological humor, whereas Gebo and the Shadow is a work of ultimate compassion and benevolence.

Old and broke, Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) trudges along with his wife, Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), and Sofia, a niece turned daughter in law (Oliveira’s regular Leonor Silveira); their son, João (Ricardo Trêpa), flew the coop eight years ago to lead a life outside the law, which still seemed preferable to the humiliating poverty of their household. A truth liable to put the old woman six feet under, it is kept under wraps as Gebo weaves a web of imaginary letters from João who, of course, remembers his mother oh so fondly. Coming home one evening, Gebo recognizes a darting shadow to be his fugitive son. João shows up, but not for long: he steals the company money his father keeps at home, and flees again. Gebo takes the blame for the crime.

Two evenings and a morning. Oliveira disposes of the reconciliatory fourth act intended by Brandão, in which we would have seen Gebo come back after three years in prison and have a drink with his son. Throughout the whole first act, i.e. for about 40 minutes, the characters are patiently waiting for João, who, for all we know, might never appear and thus remain a tantalizing MacGuffin, just like Godot does in Becket’s play Oliveira often refers to when speaking about this film. When the son all of a sudden enters the stage, his shrill laughter immediately breaks the languid pace and accelerates the film. The meek family pretends like they can pick up exactly where they left off, but João enmeshes Gebo in a heated debate. Complete and utter destitution defines their way of life through and through, which makes one think of the Straubs films, also framed within social hardship their characters have to endure (e.g. Class Relations; director of photography Renato Berta, who lensed Gebo, was also a frequent collaborator of the directing duo).

The father-son debate represents, in essence, a clash of two philosophies, Gebo’s and João’s. The former is technically “conformist”: Gebo has come to terms with his misery, he acknowledges it, and still is dignified with his overdeveloped sense of duty (even though he is admittedly “screaming inside”). The latter is technically “revolutionary”: João rebels against the values instilled by his family, and the unfair rules imposed by the outside world; the rant he delivers repeats Raskolnikov’s classic soliloquy almost verbatim. Did any of his dreams come true? We see an eloquent answer to this question in the lengthy establishing shot: a harbor, a cargo ship, and João leaning on an anchor against the backdrop of the sea. João’s pose, however, betrays just how tragically out of reach this vastness remains for him. Unable to embrace this space, he is forever stuck with the shadows to hide in.

Flickering here and there in the dialogue, the titular shadow expands until it becomes an abyss: João, completely detached and already determined to go all the way no matter what, speaks of “the blackness of [his] soul” and the frightening shadows contained therein. The story João tells—of a man, starved into madness, he decided to strangle—also takes place on a dimly lit street, which explains a mysterious, and hauntingly beautiful, scene right after the opening credits. In this close-up suggestive of silent cinema, someone’s hands reach out to the audience from the screen to the blood-curdling screams: “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!” Last time Oliveira accomplished visuals so immaculate it was a disarmingly naïve sequence of Isaac and Angelica flying together. So now we know it was João screaming. What we never get to know, though, is whether this assault was real or imaginary; did he turn to crime after claiming that “it wasn’t him”?He calls his hands “disembodied” for a reason: they seem to have an autonomous existence of their own, motivated only by hunger and privation. On more than one occasion we hear that João’s hands are extremely cold.

He is guilty of two crimes, one real (theft) and one presumable (murder), which brings to mind Oliveira’s feature debut, Aniki Bobo, a neorealist masterpiece about a kid who steals a doll for his girlfriend, and then is falsely accused of pushing his rival down the hill. Furthermore, the films are slightly united by the end theme of Gebo, Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony (his most personal and also most somber piece). The first movement that the composer himself called “a toy shop” evokes his childhood (as he described: ‘childhood – just a toy-shop, with a cloudless sky above’); this immediately brings to mind the coveted doll in Aniki Bobo was on display in the magical Store of Temptations.

Shostakovich’s symphony is teeming with premonition of death. “We're living under a shadow,” Gebo opines, while João, the hard man that he is, claims his parents are either buried alive or already dead. The monotony of the first evening rendered in extremely long shots with little to no editing mirrors the eight-year long absence of the prodigal son. The film is knee deep in repetitions as Gebo sweats over his books, adding the same numbers aloud, and the clock hands keep stopping at the same hour: half past nine. The time João arrives, and the time he disappears. Slow movements, scant gestures, the characters’ age—all indications of decline. The peace and quiet so painstakingly preserved will be interrupted when João comes; and yet, Gebo says, “Good fortune in life is when nothing happens.” The movie follows this maxim to a T. Monotony here is stripped of negative connotations—on the contrary, it helps the viewer feel calm, protected, warm inside. Gebo is, essentially, a film about the pillars family rests upon; it is about what it means to be responsible for others. Years after he left, João is welcomed to the fold in a matter-of-fact fashion only family could pull off. Like any other relatives, they share traumas, mutual reproaches, and long-term beefs that need not be articulated, although we do see some of the old wounds bleed through casual conversation. Doroteia, for instance, sometimes is on the brink of hating Sofia and blames her for what happened to her son.

A realistic portrayal of a dysfunctional family broken up and then reassembled, this highly theatrical chamber piece reminded me of another cinematic pinnacle of this year, Masahiro Kobayashi’s Women on the Edge. Made in the aftermath of the Fukushima tragedy in the director’s own house, the film focuses on the three sisters who reunite after fifteen years, as if brought closer together by the calamity. One of them, just like João, abandoned her family and took all their money away. After the earthquake, they meet in the house they grew up in, now without plumbing or electricity, surrounded by a weed-grown garden; at first they don’t even recognize each other. We see horrendous images of land ravaged by the elements. The movie, however, is much more reminiscent of Bergman than of Oliveira, since Kobayashiis just as proficient at capturing the frenzied tenderness that imbues all love-hate relationships.

As I watched Gebo come back, time and again, to his auditing ritual I raked my brain trying to remember what famous play those calculations echoed—until Pierre Leon, a film critic, a filmmaker who once took a shot at Chekhov, and a dear friend of mine, suggested we see Gebo as a sort-of sequel to Uncle Vanya (don’t miss Leon’s own adaptation Oncle Vania starring Jean-Claude Biette). The comparison is apt: just like how Voynitsky devoted his life to a thankless job to provide for someone he deeply cared for, Gebo also slaves away and jumps at the opportunity to give everything he has to his son. Even though he knows about his propensity for stealing, Gebo doesn’t even try to hide from João the fact that there is a huge sum of money in the house. At the end, Sonya (Brandau and Chekhov even use similar names) consoles her uncle promising him “the whole sky all diamonds” as a reward for his tireless toil and sufferings. Oliveira, in some such way, shows them years later, still unchanged: resigned and compliant, they carry on with their labor, waiting their “last hour [and when it comes] to meet it humbly” and “for the angels to sing.” The whole sky, all diamonds, is nigh.

Apart from that, the film is concerned with the meaning of art, cinema first and foremost; it treats filmmaking as an enchanting craft of shadows. Gebo’s friend, Chamiço (Cintra again), comes over and starts bellyaching about how expensive theatre lighting has gotten lately; a musician, he plays the “air flute” in one of the most memorable sequences. Gebo’s fantasies and Oliveira’s movies are akin to this phantom music. “Art is a great consolation,” Chamiço concludes. It is true: just see how the shabby surroundings in The Box are transformed by Shubert’s Ave Maria when a street musician starts strumming on his guitar. See how the darkness of a prefab house recoils, defeated, as a little girl mumbles a Hugo poem in one of the best French films about poverty, Les ombres (1982) by Jean-Claude Brisseau.

And yet, if the movie is set in the early 1900s, one cannot help but be thrown back to the key poverty treatise of the time, Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. Gebo informed my perception of the familiar work when I recently reread it to see Luka, the protagonist, as almost a director who takes the sad shelter dwellers into a realm of imagination, fancy, and hope. For a play with ‘social’ problems, the characters in Lower Depths talk about, and believe in, art way too profoundly. The sheet music for folk song Gorky included in the text is not arbitrary; the French pulp romances Nastya reads and retells do, after a fashion, become her own past on the strength of her delusion. Another character, an actor with a drinking problem, recites a poem by Béranger—and it’s literally about “golden slumbers.” (It is in a Russian translation of Béranger used by Gorky; originally it was not a “golden slumber,” but “un rêve heureux” in poem Les Fous.) Theatre, poetry, cinema, literature, music: don’t you think it’s much too much for a single drama? It is no wonder, then, that a play written a couple of years after cinema was invented attracted the attention of directors as disparate as Kurosawa, Renoir, and Niskanen.

Gebo’s niece, Sonya (i.e., I’m sorry, Sofia), is granted solace as well: after João takes to his heels, she casts a glance at a Madonna figurine (that reminds us of the Madonna from Le soulier de Satin). When asked about God, Gorky’s Luka replied about art: “If you believe, it exists. If you don’t, it doesn’t. All the things you believe in exist.” Here lies another meaningful coincidence: the ghost of a sea captain in Joseph Mankiewicz’s sublime The Ghost and Mrs. Muir repeats these words almost verbatim as he dictates his adventure novel to Gene Tierney’s heroine. “I’m here because you believe I’m here. And keep on believing and I’ll always be real to you.” A similar apparition haunts Raoul Ruiz’s last film, La noche de enfrente, which might be deemed more or less a remake of Mankiewicz’s masterwork. Both directors prove just how blurry the line between life and art really is; when we die, we turn into fiction and simply continue to live in other people’s stories. The Ghost is equally important for Alain Resnais who went so far as to name the female protagonist in Wild Grass Marguerite Muir. The three films that have impressed me the most this year—Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, Ruiz’s La noche, and Oliveira’s Gebo—are linked by their authors’ overarching intent: all three of them ponder the reasons films are made. Different yet kindred, their answers are found in the everyday illusionism practiced by Gebo the auditor; in a fantasy of death as a painter who negates the discrepancies between reality and fiction (La noche…); and finally in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (You Ain’t…), a myth that will be returning for ever more as long as humans are capable of engaging in fiction and having faith in it.

The word “illusion” is repeatedly mentioned in Oliveira’s film. Gebo is a coffee movie, its characters drinking the freshly brewed beverage all the time (and mind you, they do it with great sensuality and zest). But what keeps them awake is, actually, the lie Gebo immerses Doroteia into, being the shadow master that he is. He is the director, she is the insatiable audience. She subtly implies twice that she might know the truth, but prefers her husband’s made-up stories as any audience would.

Doroteia is dreaming. Dark and murky, the film is finally illuminated when it draws to a close. As soon as the sun pierces the shadows, the movie ends.

Translated by Anton Svynarenko.

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  • David Phelps

    A wonderful piece, Boris—thank you. I’d need to see the movie again to even begin to chart all the ways that, despite its contiguous spaces and times, it also “lure[s] us into a province of utter chronological disorder” as weather shifts, day switches to night, and characters appear and disappear. But couldn’t you say that this historical chaos, as usual in Oliveira, is also a national and linguistic chaos? For all the mock-realism of its duration and contained spaces, not the least of its irrational conceits is that in this Portuguese-produced movie by Portugal’s leading director, these Portuguese characters in a Portuguese house are all speaking impeccable French…

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