The Portuguese film director Manoel de Oliveira, who has died aged 106, was among the most original and profound artists working in the medium.
But it was only in the 1980s, when Oliveira was already in his 70s, with eight feature films and six shorts behind him, that he began to gain international recognition and awards, including on two occasions the Venice film festival honorary Golden Lion for his overall career (1985 and 2004).
What is equally astonishing is that he was never more prolific than after he turned 80, writing and directing a film a year even as a centenarian.
Oliveira was obviously making up for lost time. He had found no favour under the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, when he was condemned to years of silence and inactivity.
After the dictator died in 1970, Oliveira still found it difficult to make films, being charged with the sin of “elitism” under the socialists. As a result, he had to wait to fully explore his principal themes of desire, fear, guilt and perdition, underscored by the very Portuguese sentiment of the “consolation of melancholy”.
He was born in the coastal city of Porto, which inspired a number of his films, and is also the city that saw the birth of cinema in Portugal. In his documentary Porto da Minha Infância (Porto of My Childhood, 2001), Oliveira chose to film the city of his memories. Its final shot, of a lighthouse, is a reference to the first shot of the first film he made, in 1931, Douro, Faina Fluvial (Labour on the River Douro), an experimental short on dockworkers, which caused a political scandal.
Unable to make films under the severe censorship laws, Oliveira spent a great deal of his life into middle age managing the family industrial machinery factory, while racing cars in his free time.
His first feature film, Aniki-Bóbó (1942), followed the adventures of street urchins growing up in the slums of Porto and on the banks of the river. Made in the year that the word neorealismo was coined in Italy, it contains many of the elements of the neorealism movement, having excellent location shooting and natural performances from the children of the area.
Fourteen years elapsed before his next feature, O Pintor e a Cidade (The Artist and the City), also set in Porto, which he produced, wrote, photographed, edited and directed.
The first phase of his work was what he called “the stage of the people”, which was dominated by the dialogue between documentary and fiction. The second phase, “the stage of the bourgeoisie”, started in 1972, each of the films sharing the theme of unfulfilled love, and the backdrop of a repressive society.
This began with O Passado e o Presente (Past and Present), a family drama told with black humour, the camera roaming around the talkative characters in their opulent settings, and continued with Benilde ou a Virgem Mãe (Benilde or the Virgin Mother, 1975) and Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love, 1978), ending with Francisca (1981), in which the camera hardly moves, but the rich, beautifully composed colour images are never static.
Francisca, based on the romantic novel of a triangular relationship by Agustina Bessa-Luís (four of whose books the director adapted) is an example of Oliveira’s aim to create a synthesis of literary, musical and pictorial elements. Many of his films are adaptations from literary works, which, while assuming the literary nature of the text, confer a temporality on them with long and fixed shots or the repetition of such shots, destroying the conventional narrative that relies on shot/countershot and editing.
This technique is seen in his adaptation of the Paul Claudel play, Le Soulier Satin (The Satin Slipper, 1985), and La Lettre (The Letter, 1999), an updating of La Princesse de Clèves, with long, lingering shots allowing the viewer time to observe the conflict between love and honour, carnality and spirituality on the director’s canvas.
Also on the theme of doomed love, Vale Abraão (Abraham Valley, 1993) was a stylised reworking of Madame Bovary, set in a wine-growing region of modern-day Portugal, while O Convento (The Convent, 1995) has a Faustian figure (John Malkovich) allowing his wife (Catherine Deneuve) to be seduced when offered immortality.
Os Canibais (The Cannibals, 1988) is a macabre satire based on the conventions of opera decked out in gorgeous costumes and period decor. As the film becomes more and more grotesque it demands the audience throw off any preconceptions and go along with the humorous and poetic happenings. It ends with all the characters dancing together in a theatrical manner, followed by a duet between a fountain and an off-screen violin.
The main interest of the rather stilted Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo (Voyage to the Beginning of the World, 1997) was the poignant casting of Marcello Mastrioanni, in his final role, as Oliveira’s alter ego. He plays a wise, ageing director named Manoel who remembers his past while travelling through Portugal by car. He remarks of himself that “the mind is fine, but the wrapping deteriorates”.
There was no sense of any deterioration either mentally or physically in Oliveira. He continued to surprise with Je Rentre à la Maison (I’m Going Home, 2001), a poignant meditation on ageing, with Michel Piccoli as an elderly actor trying to cope with grief; the witty parabolic multilingual Um Filme Falado (A Talking Picture, 2003), which takes place on board a cruise ship in the Mediterranean; Belle Toujours (Always Beautiful, 2006) whose title not only delineates the theme but is a near homophone of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, to which it pays homage; and Cristóvão Colombo – O Enigma (Christopher Columbus – The Enigma, 2007), a cheeky semi-documentary featuring the director and his wife setting out to prove (convincingly) that the explorer was actually Portuguese (and not Italian as usually supposed). These later films were all pared down to the essentials in setting and style.
Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura (Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, 2009), based on a short story by the great Portuguese novelist Eça de Queiroz, manages to evoke 19th-century realism in a gentle, measured tale of a young bookkeeper (Ricardo Trêpa, Oliveira’s grandson) in love with the eponymous girl next door. Trêpa plays a photographer in the dreamlike O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica, 2010). In O Gebo e a Sombra (Gebo and the Shadow, 2012), Oliveira keeps camera movement to a minimum to concentrate on the wonderful performances and faces of Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau.
In 2014 Oliveira was appointed grand officier of the Légion d’honneur.
Oliveira continued to tantalise, having stipulated that Visita ou Memórias e Confissões (Memories and Confessions), made in 1982, was only to be released after his death.
He is survived by his wife, Maria, whom he married in 1940, and their two sons and two daughters.
© Guardian. April 2, 2015