October 2, 2012
The 50th edition of the New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with a Gala 3D screening of Ang Lee’s The Life of Pi. While that digital projection was warmly received, later that weekend the first showing of Brian DePalma’s Passion was canceled because of an intransigent DCP (Digital Cinema Package). As the NYFF, like festivals worldwide, becomes dominantly digital, attending some of the few celluloid screenings starts to feel like a modestly defiant gesture. Two 35mm dinosaurs, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Satin Slipper (1985) and Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (2012) use Portugal’s colonial past as their subject, with both using archaic forms to emphasize themes of negation and evanescence.
Booked as part of the festival’s Masterworks sidebar, The Satin Slipper (1985) is an adaptation of Paul Claudel’s 12-hour 1929 play, which Oliveira whittled down to a svelte 410 minutes. It is only the second time that the uncut film version has screened in New York City, following a brief run at the Public Theater in 1994 (Stephen Holden’s NY Times review: “not easy viewing”). It was programmed for the New York Film Festival in 1985, following its premiere in Venice, but according to associate Film Society programmer Scott Foundas, U.S. distributors Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (of Cannon Films) would only consent to show a cut version of two and a half hours. Other titles Golan and Globus would produce/distribute in 1985: American Ninja, Invasion U.S.A. and Death Wish III. One can’t help but imagine a Cannon Christmas party with Manoel de Oliveira brushing elbows with Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson…
The opening line of Claudel’s opus is, “the scene of this play is the entire world”, which he attempts to capture through the strivings of 50 plus characters at the turn of the 17th century. It takes place after the disappearance of the Portuguese King Sebastian on his colonialist mission in Africa, after which King Philip II of Spain brought Portugal under his power, part of his expansion that also led him to the Americas. Against this backdrop of overreach and excess Oliveira focuses on its inverse, the painfully unrequited love between Don Rodrigue (Luis Miguel Cintra) and Dona Prouheze (Patricia Barzyk). Rodrigue is the rogue whom King Philip nominates to be Viceroy of the Americas, to rule in his stead. Meanwhile the beautiful Prouheze has been married off to the much older judge, Don Pelagio (Franck Oger), whom she honors but cannot love. To restrain her emotion, and maintain loyalty to Pelagio, Prouheze places one of her slippers with a statue of the Madonna, so that if she is tempted by lust she will approach evil “with a broken foot”. Pelagio, aware of her emotional distance, will send her to Africa to control the smitten Don Camillo in order to hold the line against the Moors. Separated by oceans, Rodrigue and Prouheze nurse their love over the decades – living lives of negation and sacrifice, hoping to be reunited in death.
In an “Author’s Note” to The Satin Slipper, Claudel writes, “The most carelessly crumpled back-drop, or none at all, will do.” Oliveira takes this to heart, staging the play as if on the budget of a community theatrical troupe, with a mostly static camera shooting long speeches with few edits, as if returning to the style of early cinema, the one-shot films of Edison or Lumiere. Only the presence of sound and the scattered slow zooms indicate this is a modern feature. The ocean is created by spinning sheaths of blue papier-mache on giant rollers, stalked by cardboard whales, while mountain ranges are simply sketched backdrops. Oliveira’s Satin Slipper is very playfully self-reflexive, pointing out the artificiality of its constructions at every turn – far more so even than his previous tales of unrequited love, Amor de Perdicao (1979)and Francisca (1981, both adaptations, of Camilo Castelo Brancoo and Agustina Bessa Luis, respectively).
He opens the film with a tour-de-force tracking shot of a crowd entering a theater, stand-ins for the viewers about to sit for close to seven hours. After a narrator, never to re-appear, introduces the play (his tongue planted in his cheek), the doors fling open and the viewers enter. The camera backs up into the theater, rolling slowly down the aisles, until it tilts upwards, revealing actors in Renaissance dress standing stock still in the balcony. Eventually one of these actors descends, and the camera pans left as he climbs up on the stage, the curtains parting to reveal not a stage set, but a film screen. He speaks of the constellations of stars visible to Don Rodrigue, tied up on a ship that is equidistant between the Old World and the New. After the camera zooms close to the image of Rodrigue on the screen, Oliveira cuts for the first time, to the image of the projector, its light shimmering over all in the audience.
As Rodrigue is reflected by the light of the moon and stars, the audience is bathed in the flickering glow of the projector, the distance between the fictional and the real collapsing. It’s constructive to compare this scene to the opening of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which also begins in a theater, except those viewers are passive and motionless, dulled by the clichés that Carax will enliven for the rest of his film. Oliveira is not bemoaning the state of cinema but attempting to cultivate an active viewer, as he is quoted in Randal Johnson’s Manoel de Oliveira: “My perspective is precisely to put the spectator in the action. In this way, the spectator goes from a passive, manipulated attitude to an active attitude in which he should draw his own conclusions and undertake a criticism of what he sees.” He is attempting to thrust you into the drama as it unspools, to share the light of the stars and the projector. There are the alienation effects of a jester who is shown painting backdrops and writing characters “who exist before I am finished”, and then he is able to immerse you in the emotion of the piece, seen to no greater ends then the monologue of a woman in the moon. In a long take, while slowly zooming in, Marie-Christine Barrault’s face appears in the firmament, straight out of Melies, but speaking of “never” as a kind of eternity, sacrifice as transcendence – and one begins to recognize and identify with that spark of religious belief that once lit the world ablaze.
In Tabu, Miguel Gomes is also concerned with old forms. It is a film split in two, both shot in black and white. Part One, (entitled “A Paradise Lost”, in 35mm) follows the aging human rights activist Pilar (Teresa Madruga), as she deals with the growing dementia of her neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), and the seeming indifference of Aurora’s black maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso). The second half, “Paradise”, imagines Aurora’s past life in Africa, shot in hazy, grainy 16mm. This second half is narrated in voice-over, with the images from Africa granted sound effects but no sync dialogue, giving the impression of memories half-remembered, of potent emotions but vague details. This final section is set in the 60s, just prior to the African wars of independence that wrest the Portuguese colonies free of the domination that had bound them since the days of King Sebastian.
Gomes has reversed the order of these chapters from Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau’s Tabu (1931), in which the “Paradise” of a lovers’ tryst in the South Seas is then a “Paradise Lost” in Chapter 2, as they attempt to adapt to life on a French colony. In placing the Lost Paradise first, Gomes shades every action in the romantic Paradise with the knowledge of its ultimate outcome – his lovers are every bit as doomed as Rodrigue and Prouzhe. For a film suffused with themes of loss, the decision to shoot on 35 and 16mm becomes a part of the grander narrative. The frames on which these women are captured, stuck in silver nitrate, are now as fragile and disappearing as the narrative in which they enact. And while Oliveira could not have forseen it while he shot The Satin Slipper, his use of 35mm has become yet another distanciation effect, its depth and beauty another indication of what our present age has lost.