A turn-of-the-century period piece, largely without a plot, that takes place almost entirely in a single room — and directed by a man who’s almost as old as the medium within which he works, cinema itself? Of course. Why not?
O Gebo e a Sombra (Gebo and the Shadow) is the most recent feature film from the brilliant Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese filmmaker who was born in 1907, when Portugal was not yet a country but a kingdom. It was released (in fall 2012 in Paris) at a relatively productive point in Oliveira’s career, despite his exceedingly advanced age — 103 at the time, a point to which every critical appraisal of his work, it seems, is obliged to return, however old this can quickly get (pun intended). Indeed, Oliveira doesn’t bear the distractingly sensational title of “world’s oldest filmmaker” without regular and exceptional work. Defiantly industrious, he has completed more feature-length films in the last two decades than in all the preceding years of his career, which began in 1931 with Douro, Faina Fluvial, a documentary about laborers along one of the major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula.
Oliveira adapted Gebo from a play by Raul Brandão (1867–1930), an underheralded (and untranslated) Portuguese writer who regularly drew upon semi-existential themes like human incapacity and the boundaries that haunt possibility. Brandão, a descendant of sailors, often lent his works maritime backdrops, and Oliveira conveys this scenography at the outset, in the first shot of his film: An insouciant young man leans against an anchor at the edge of a port, as a dim morning sun alights an oily red and black ship in the background. The man takes a look around, then slowly walks off to the right of the screen as the film’s credits start to play in the left. This preliminary shot, composed with painterly expressiveness by veteran cinematographer Renato Berta, suffuses the whole of Gebo with an odd glow and a particularly marine oiliness.
The titular Gebo refers to the patriarch of an impoverished house (Michael Lonsdale), husband to Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), father-in-law to Sofia (Oliveira regular Leonor Silveira), and father to João, Sofia’s husband who fled the household eight years before the start of the film and has scarcely been heard from in the elapsing time. Gebo and Sofia are collaborators in a fictive correspondence with the errant João, a lie sustained for Doroteia’s sake, in order to keep her nerves from collapsing at the discovery that her son is really an itinerant thief.
The film’s first act begins with a subdued pas de deux between Doroteia and Gebo. The players in this tone-setting scene revolve despairingly around a thick black wooden table, half of which is covered by Gebo’s ledger, to which he is constantly, somnolently returning, making the same calculations over and over; the other half is taken up by a solitary gilded oil lamp that lights the faces in the room with a faint blood orange glow. The table — at which only Gebo remains seated nearly throughout, like the heavy, old, dormant force that he is — acts as a kind of buffer as the characters swivel around its imposing corners. “You used to make conversation. You even spoke too much,” Doroteia pleads, coming to Gebo’s side. “And now it’s like getting blood out of a stone.”
When João does turn up, less than halfway through the film, his performance runs the gamut of all those ridiculous men from 19th-century literature: Poe’s contemplative lunatics, Turgenev’s rebellious nihilists, Dostoevsky’s spiritual criminals, Baudelaire’s spleen-sick spectators, and Gogol’s hallucinating dolts.
“I’m suffocating,” he furtively tells Sofia, while overlooking a table at which Gebo and Doroteia entertain two guests. One guest is played by the legendary but here not entirely recognizable Jeanne Moreau, the other by Luis Miguel Cintra, an Oliveira regular. The tableware, Moreau’s feather hat, and the oil lamp (directly centered this time, bisecting the shots) all radiate orange and red among the thick shadows that crowd the room. Oliveira’s dreamy manipulation of light and color is redolent of a Dutch master, and provides the ideal canvas for the aging quartet’s sentimental reveries. Over coffee they discuss music and the consolation of art, as well as reminiscences of youthful seduction. Cintra’s character, Chamiço, leads the way with a soliloquy on the power of art, which, owing to Oliveira’s unique finesse, manages to be both heartfelt and parodic — both a sincere celebration of creativity and a tongue-in-cheek mocking of the institution of culture. João’s nausea is only piqued by Chamiço’s words. “I’ve felt a great weight on me since I came in here,” he whispers to a distressed Sofia. “Everyone looks deformed to me.”
Although Gebo is set mostly in a restricted physical space, Oliveira’s uncanny sensitivity opens out onto a truly larger one — a visual and sonic landscape of delicate intensity that implicates the periphery as much as the center. Our attention drifts to the cold, palpable moisture clinging to the walls; to the orange halos of gaslight sparingly distributed around the room; to the warm, nearly aromatic coffee served by Sofia; to the calming, gravely rasp of Jeanne Moreau’s voice; to the scraping shuffling of feet and the earthy tonal clicks of the opening and closing of archaic doors. Together these little touches form a chorus of sight and sound that thickens, expands, and plays with the limited space that Gebo has to work with.
Gebo arrives on the heels of two other recent films by Oliveira: Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (2009) and The Strange Case of Angelica (2010). Together, they form something like a trilogy: all are reflections on the intertwining of love, art, and responsibility. Although at times playfully flippant, Gebo is the most somber and least affected of these three works. In it, Oliveira diligently presents — in his beautiful technique that here invokes painting, there theater — a tribute to the past as much as to the future, as well as to the ties that bind the past to the future.
O Gebo e a Sombra is playing at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, East Village, Manhattan) through June 3.