Ascetically adapted from Raul Brandão's 1923 play, Gebo and the Shadow takes place almost entirely in one cramped room, its minimal action centered on a drab wooden table. Oriented around this flat board are three key figures. The first is the title character, an aged accountant perpetually accompanied by the second, a financial ledger at which he never seems to stop working, often punctuating the conversation with a carried one or a dropped seven. The third is a slim oil lamp, always burning dimly amid the nocturnal tableau, the only source of the light and warmth in his cold cell. The neat relationship between these figures, the way the entire story flows through the triangulated conduit they form, perfectly sums up the striking economy of Manoel de Oliveira's modest, austere film.
A sparely staged version of a play already pared down to basic theatrical elements, Gebo and the Shadow defines de Oliveira's late period, during which his movies have continued to shrink in size and scope while remaining thematically expansive. Whether that reduction is a consequence of his impressive age or just a directorial conceit, the film uses the spartan setting and an immobile camera to remarkable effect, this tiny space dominated by the enduring effects of Gebo's past decisions, whittling a complex story down to a series of essential moments. It's a fitting choice, since scarcity is an essential for Gebo (Michael Lonsdale), whose handling of other people's money only further identifies his own poverty, the accounts book and the lamp functioning as twinned markers of his internal fastidiousness, the ceaseless pursuit of order and the small, unfaltering flame of morality that fuels his life.
The crux of this morality is his self-appointed status as family protector, which means caring for his jilted daughter-in-law, Sofia (Leonor Silveira), and spinning elaborate lies to his wife, Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), about the whereabouts of his bad-apple son, João (de Oliveira regular Ricardo Trêpa), an outlaw whose fugitive status he's covered up for years. João eventually appears, and his return reignites the struggle between Gebo's abstemious lifestyle and his own spendthrift selfishness. The prodigal son views all life as a prison, crime as both a luxury and a declaration of rebellion, the act at least offering a modicum of freedom before the bars clang shut again. This is presented as a reasonable, if unscrupulous, viewpoint, another consequence of a world in which Gebo's firm decency is rewarded with a lifetime of thankless toil, the darkness thickening as the film progresses.
So in a quiet, delicate manner, a man whose career began 80 years ago tells another story about the heavy burden of personal history, the way actions and events linger on long after they've slid into the past. Here a man who's done everything right has nothing to show for it, and by surrounding the character with now-elderly beauties (Cardinale is later joined by Jeanne Moreau, playing a fragile but vivacious neighbor), de Oliveira further accentuates the toll taken by time. Eventually there's a climactic incident involving a theft, and Gebo makes a grave final choice, the culmination of all his previous decisions. The lamp is overpowered, by a splash of brightness as the house's front door is thrown open, revealing daylight for the first time. It's another mysterious gesture, one representing either the ultimate erasure of Gebo's careworn integrity or the liberation of the light that's always lurked inside him, one last beguiling image in a film full of quietly memorable moments.