As if to atone for last year’s absence of Christopher Columbus: The Enigma, Manoel de Oliveira’s ode to history’s artifacts, statues and old men, lost in a present they still haunt, the New York Film Festival offers The Northern Land, something like a bad Oliveira forgery. As in Oliveira’s work, The Northern Land: collapses times and jumps among them to find the echoes; is a beautifully composed series of tableaus, with the hues of people emerging, just barely, from the shadows; poses everyday people like statues amid elaborate ruins, with paintings as the walls; lets these people sit and talk—almost lecture—quietly at the camera about how the myths represented around them have resounded in their own lives. The characters are, like Oliveira’s, living artifacts; the novel the movie is based on is even by one of Oliveira’s frequent collaborators, Agustina Bessa-Luís. The movie, however, evinces no recognition, as Oliveira always does, that there’s a reality beyond the walls.
It’s a fairy-tale view of history, in which the outside world has little to do with, well, anything, and in which various permutations off the same simple stories of aristocrats’ love affairs and madness comprise the storyline, as often told as it is shown. The same events recur throughout multiple generations (there’s a condescending nod to the poor people, who have the same jealous reactions throughout the ages—just simple island folk), as if, on the movie’s isolated island, development is incapable of happening. History is repeated, first as pulp, then as the same pulp. Vertigo, say, takes the same view, then shows how it’s all a construct, that past and present—fantasy and reality—are irrevocably severed. Northern Land never sobers up to such an understanding: The cute contrivances remain those of a screenwriter, to be offered up ere long like leftovers. The years may pass and the heirs pass on—but pass on every characteristic they have. The past doesn’t haunt the present. The past remains the present, aristocratic bodice-lacings and betrayals.
Neither time nor space in Northern Land seem to extend forward or back: both go nowhere. João Botelho shoots on HD (at a press preview, the movie was shown on DVD—literally, not material for a “film” festival), a format that flattens his image, robs it of texture in favor of high-detail precision (the trees instead of the forest), as if undoing the work of film’s smeary impressionism in favor of the exact science of a laboratory investigation that would recreate one of Whistler’s Nocturnes out of pixels, but in higher resolution, so that all the lights wouldn’t needlessly smear just so. Botelho’s abundant shadows and slight blushes of color that must have taken so many artificial lights to calibrate all, here, look less like actual shadows, obscuring things, than crystalline slabs of black light, digital wallpaper. Northern Land becomes a period piece, history writ in plastic. The narrative sweeps through the years, but the world never looks in flux. As with the story, nothing moves. Really, it’s airless.