On INQUIETUDE (Manoel de Oliveira, 1998)

March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Note: Starting today, The Bad & The Beautiful returns with semi-regular updates. Our writings will be less prolific than our earlier schedule mandated, but we vigorously refuse to allow this blog to die. Enjoy. – S


The film opens on a proscenium-arched study in a 19th century Spanish apartment, occupied by an elderly scientist of great acclaim (Jose Pinto) and his middle-aged son of near-equal renown (Luis Miguel Cintra). The old man is in the throes of despair, fixated on his legacy and believing himself aged beyond the zenith of his fame. His son, he fears, is high on the fumes of his own success, oblivious to the possibility that they might one day evaporate. Father and son become deadlocked in dialogue, the former having reached the conclusion that suicide is the ultimate guarantor of post-mortem prestige and the latter amusedly parrying his rhetorical blows. This comical mini-narrative ends in both suicide and filicide, the two falling from the window of their third-story apartment against a crudely painted backdrop of neighboring houses. Act one: an appetizing theatrical farce, adapted by de Oliveira from a play by Prista Monteiro.

Or not quite. Wedged in about two-thirds of the way through this otherwise bathetic story is a departure to an outdoor picnic where our squabbling heroes are joined by one of the father’s ex-students named Marta (Isabel Ruth), conceived by Monteiro as the incarnation of natural grace to dwarf the old man’s narcissism and introduced by de Oliveira with a rotating, neck-craning POV shot of the sun as glimpsed through overhanging foliage. The twirling camera syncs with Marta’s graceful perambulations through gold-tinted grass, the entire scene a thunderbolt of naturalism to deliver us all from the neurotic hell of the theater. Stage drama is an old man’s game, de Oliveira well knows, where conflicts are invented out of whole cloth and engendered by specifically masculine forms of insecurity. Marta is feminine beauty objectified in true 19th century fashion, an embodiment of purity and placidity. She’s not enough to topple any petty masculine dreams of everlasting glory, but she at least serves as an integral thematic segue into the second act, in which the objectification of feminine beauty is in turn propped up for critique.

The stage curtains are drawn and we enter the world of writer António Patrício. Two aristocratic playboys thus far absorbed in the Monteiro production divert their gaze to a mirror pair of courtesans in the opposite box. The young man played by Diogo Doria seems less interested in them, leaving his friend played by David Cardoso to make their acquaintance and report back. As in the now diegetically nested play, the male characters go unnamed, while the names of their feminine counterparts are fetishized. The Cardoso character stakes his territory with Gaby (Rita Blanco), leaving the more sensitive Doria to settle for Suzy (Leonor Silveira), who comes to inflame his romantic ideals before utterly devastating them.

This second act has a way with stately long takes and period décor that ups the first act’s aesthetic ante while never quite shaking its essentially theatrical footholds—foregrounded actors in protracted dialogue against studio backdrops, the conversation about vaguely existential unrest. It’s a weightier story, with more sharply defined emotional and visual contours, and yet in many respects it’s the same story, only appropriated for a more enriched cinematic sensibility. Doria—vexed by Suzy’s beauty for its finitude, its ephemerality—is analogous to the elderly scientist and the contented Cardoso to the middle-aged son. But this narrative transposition cuts a different way when it comes to the female characters. Marta and Suzy, both emblems of unattainable beauty, serve vastly different functions, the former an ineffectual agent of change and the latter so effective in entrancing her male benefactor as to emotionally cripple him. Suzy is a more complex creature, a living, breathing human being who withstands Doria’s vain efforts to “embalm her spirit,” to capture her splendor in a jar.

He makes one glorious attempt, though, after she has passed away. The impressionistic spirit of act one’s outdoor picnic resurfaces with a boat ride he and Suzy once shared together, wistfully recounted by Doria as an event both sad and rapturous. The water sparkles in the sunlight even as a light piano drizzles over the sequence, dampening the scene’s loveliness with a quiet poignancy. De Oliveira snatches the images away before they can be properly absorbed.

Act three: Cardoso tells Doria a story, inaugurating a new nested narrative. The modal shift from farcical stage play to intimately recounted fantasy tale takes us to a faraway place, well outside the strictures of conventional drama and European high society. Adapted from ‘Mother of the River’ by Augustina Bessa-Luis, the story concerns Fisalina (Leonor Baldaque), a young girl who falls in love with a boy who lives outsider her village. When tribal customs bar her from marrying him, she forges a spiritually unsound pact with the Mother of the River (Irene Papas), an ancient witch who lives in a secret cavern on the village outskirts. She loses interest in the boy, stokes the religious hysteria of her village, and eventually exiles herself to the cavern, where she has permanently taken over for the witch.

This third story throws a wrench into any high-concept schema one may wish to have imposed on this ravishing, endlessly mysterious movie. Its didactic function is evident: the fable finally offers a depiction of immortality, and it is no less fraught with earthly anxiety and romantic disappointment. But the rest of its details fail to lock in place as thematic continuances of the first two vignettes.  The formalist with time on his hands is free to dissect it further, but I’m doubtful of many explicit connections aside from what is inferable from the film’s final verbal exchange. Cardoso has concluded the story with the sympathetic postscript, “Poor Fisalina.” Doria’s rejoinder, “Poor Suzy.”

Inquietude posits a putative hierarchy of layered fiction: three stories woven along disparate lines by three tonally distinct Portuguese authors. They interrelate as a natural function of juxtaposition, de Oliveira teasing out meanings that arise peaceably, with little structuralist finagling. By the time of the final quietly moving scene, the design has dissipated and what’s left is a narrative confluence, embanked by beauty and sadness and the rest of the stuff that art is made of. – Stuart


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