The specter of death haunts nearly every dimly lit frame and extended take of Gebo and the Shadow, the latest film from the 104-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, and a work that, for once, could be said to reflect his age. That’s hardly meant as a slight. Though the film is dominated by fixed-camera setups within one set, more or less, the Portuguese auteur’s minimalist style, rather than seeming tired, ultimately meshes beautifully with the story’s world-weary, reflective substance.
An adaptation of a stage play by the Portuguese modernist Raul Brandão, Gebo and the Shadow details a family on the verge of a long-time-coming collapse. Delusions run rampant among the clan members. Most notably, the titular patriarch (Michael Lonsdale) insists on keeping his wife Doroteia’s (Claudia Cardinale) hopes for the return of their fugitive son, João, alive, to the point of pretending that he’s seen him even though he actually hasn’t in many years—a long-running charade reluctantly maintained by their servant, and João’s wife, Sofia (De Oliveira regular Leonor Silveira). And then, João (Ricardo Trêpa, another De Oliveira regular) suddenly reappears—and rather than bringing about an end to family tensions, his return merely exacerbates them as his presence exposes even deeper fissures: the family’s sheltered lives versus João’s hard experience, an insistence on maintaining an increasingly outdated value system, and so on. At one point, a couple of their friends, Chamiço (Luís Miguel Cintra) and Candidinha (Jeanne Moreau), show up, and, in a moment that recalls a similar seemingly throwaway conversation in The Strange Case of Angelica, one of them pontificates about the consolation he finds in art in an increasingly “tasteless” society.
Brandão isn’t especially subtle about his themes, and one could criticize the film for essentially offering mouthpieces for various points of view rather than fully fleshed human beings, however beautifully this particular cast of cinematic legends delivers their lines. In a sense, then, we’re always aware that we’re watching a “stage play”—and De Oliveira intensifies that feeling by basically refusing to open out the play in any way. Other than a couple of outdoor scenes, the majority of the film’s action takes place in that one cottage; with De Oliveira sticking steadfastly to an aesthetic of stationary camera setups and long takes, the audience is put in the position of feeling as if its watching a filmed theatrical performance more than anything else.
But De Oliveira’s style is hardly a mere stylistic affectation. Instead, a profound sense of stillness comes across in Gebo and the Shadow; we not only hear characters talking about their dead-end lives, but we also begin to feel that inertia in our bones. To that feeling of deadening stasis, Renato Berta’s beautifully detailed, Goya-esque cinematography adds a sense of impending death hovering above these characters: Dark hues predominate, with candlelight providing the only sources of illumination in the gloomy decor. (One could conceivably think of this film as a kind of still life with humans.)
All of this might make the film sound like an impossibly bleak and austere experience, whatever its incidental visual and temporal beauties. And yet, the longer we stay with these characters, the more the film begins to come across as an extremely deadpan comedy about people resistant to change beyond all rational reasoning. “Happiness is nothing ever happening,” the remarkably passive Gebo at one point says. Maybe it’s fitting, then, that, when something truly dramatic does finally occur in his life and he’s thus forced to make an honest-to-God decision, De Oliveira presents the outcome as a kind of ironic triumph, complete with outdoor light finally entering into this darkly lit purgatory.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 18—28.