This year saw the death, at the age of 106, of Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal’s best-known director, and one of the most remarkable artists of the 20th century (and of the 21st). He directed his first film, a short documentary, in 1931; when he died, he was in the middle of making another. He was prolific, but, after attracting the disfavor of the Salazar regime, spent long periods of his life away from the director’s chair; most of his work was made after he turned 70. I’ve seen just two of his films, the first being the brief and wispy Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (2009), released not long after his 100th birthday. My Case, made when the director was but a young whippersnapper a few years short of 80, is an altogether meatier affair, boldly unconventional in its formal approach, which many viewers may find alienating. ‘Filmed theatre’ has long been one of the gravest charges that can be levelled at a movie; offenders stand guilty of anti-cinematic stodginess and lack of imagination. Literary adaptations, and adaptations of plays in particular, therefore have a lot of work to do to escape the charge. Ravishing cinematography, swooping camera movements, frenetic editing, the use of external locations: these are the most obvious means by which directors have sought to ensure that their adaptations are properly cinematic. My Case employs none of them; indeed, few films can more accurately be labelled ‘filmed theatre’, as if it were entirely unconcerned about being thought of as such. It is partly based on a one-act play (by José Régio, who was, I believe, a friend or acquaintance of Oliveira’s); it was shot in a theatre; the camera rarely moves; the performances are deliberately declamatory and ‘theatrical’ (how often that word is used as an insult by film critics who seem to care little for and know even less about the theatre!). And yet it is always alive, dynamic, compelling.
The work is divided into four parts. The first is, I presume, Régio’s play delivered in what I’d guess is a more-or-less straightforward manner (not having read it, I can’t confirm whether it has been altered, or, if it has, how). It concerns a man, apparently insane, who intrudes upon a theatre to lecture the audience on his sufferings and persecutions just as the curtain is about to go up on a light, bourgeois comedy. The doorman, the star actress and the author attempt to get him off so that the play can begin; the four characters bicker among themselves, each concerned solely with his or her own goals and uninterested in other points of view, until a disgruntled member of the audience interrupts them to complain that his expected evening of relaxing, undemanding entertainment has been ruined. In the second part, the action is repeated – not exactly, but the outline is the same. There are some obvious differences, however: there is no color, there is no sound, and the film is played at a higher-than-normal speed. Visually, this section resembles a slapstick farce from the silent era, but the soundtrack, alternating short bursts of music with readings from a (non-dramatic) text by Samuel Beckett (from Pour finir encore et autre foirades, known in English as Fizzles), is seemingly unrelated. Color returns in the third section (which again repeats the basic action of the first), but this time, the sound has been distorted to the point of unintelligibility. Someone from the audience (not the disgruntled spectator) silently sets up a projector in the middle of the stage, and plays footage of war, famine and environmental disaster, which gradually gains the attention of everyone on stage. Before each of these sections, a crew-member with a clapper-board announces each ‘repetition’, as he calls them; this man does not appear before the last section, which, in a new departure, dramatizes the Book of Job. Job, reduced to misery, laments his state, while his wife urges him to curse God and die; his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, insist that his sorrows are God’s punishment of sin. The actor who played the Intruder now plays Job; his wife is played by the person who played the Actress; Job’s friends are played by the same actors who played the Doorman, the Author and the Spectator. Even the man who set up the projector in the third section reappears, this time in the tiny part of Elihu, who lambasts the three friends for their mistaken theology. The film ends with Job restored to his former state of wealth and bliss.
While My Case might appear, from this summary, to be a bewildering hodgepodge, it is not so. A theme common to each section is human suffering and the place it occupies in our lives. Each of the characters claims to be suffering or to have suffered. We never learn the precise nature of the Intruder’s travails, but he assures us they are at the same time exceptional and exemplary, and that, in relating them, he will be revealing profound truths. The Doorman’s circumstances – his poverty, his invalid wife, his hungry children – are dismissed as clichés by the other characters, for whom he is a mere type. The Actress claims that the Intruder’s disruption and the Doorman’s incompetence are affecting her mental well-being, and speaks of how she struggled to get a part that might finally guarantee her success. The Author is likewise fixated on his professional anxieties, on the artistic sacrifices he had to make, while the Spectator decries the stresses of ordinary existence he had sought to escape for a short time by coming to the theatre. Each character appeals to the audience for their sympathy, support, attention, respect; each is self-absorbed, uninterested in predicaments other than their own; each is a laughable stereotype. Their situations, their conditions (repeatedly referred to as ‘cases’), which they so earnestly seek to impress on the audience, are made to seem absurd, especially in contrast to the portentous language the Intruder uses to convey the importance of what he wishes to say. In the second section, or repetition, the Beckett text read in voiceover tells an oblique tale of death, guilt and resignation; there is, as in the presentation of Régio’s play, an absurdity to the suffering, but it’s not Beckett in his humorous mode, so the bleakness of that absurdity is unremitting. The suffering is interiorized; it is not, as it was in the first repetition, the occasion for oratorical appeals to the audience, but an immovable feature of a cramped, confusing mental landscape in which we struggle to find out bearings – a mental landscape that is our own and yet not our own. In the third repetition, documentary footage of actual suffering halts the theatrical action; actors become spectators as they stop to concentrate on the images. When the documentary footage stops, Picasso’s Guernica descends, an example of committed political art that throws the frivolity of bourgeois light entertainment into sharp relief. If the third repetition casts a glance at man’s inhumanity to man, the final section examines God’s inhumanity to man, in this instance, his use of Job as an object of a wager designed to prove a point to Satan. Job, in penury, mourning his children, afflicted by horrific boils, is representative of the worst suffering that humans can undergo, and yet he has always been a righteous man. The theological question of how the sufferings of the righteous can made compatible with the idea of a just God is one that has already been referenced by Oliveira. In the first repetition, while the Doorman and the Intruder are arguing, they are panicked by the offstage voice of the Actress saying ‘He loves me, he loves me not’. We soon find out, as the Actress enters to deliver her monologue, that she is referring to the two vapid young lovers whose attentions she must choose between – but of course, considered retrospectively, the light-hearted phrase assumes a rather darker meaning. The same phrase is heard even earlier; in fact, it is the very opening of the film, uttered while the screen is black. I don’t know much about Oliveira’s religious views (here’s an interview that seems to indicate that he was a Catholic with doubts), but I find it hard to see how the film could leave many viewers convinced of the existence of a wise and benevolent deity.
Above: Luís Miguel Cintra as Job.
In my next post, I’ll be looking at Oliveira’s explorations into the relationship between film and theatre.