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At 101, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is on fighting form

Text by Jon FROSCH , , special correspondent in Cannes

Latest update : 2010-05-16

In "The Strange Case of Angelica", his latest entry at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Portuguese centenarian Manoel de Oliveira offers viewers a touchingly old-fashioned piece of work set in a contemporary world.

At 101, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is the oldest working filmmaker in the world – though seeing him dart spryly around a cocktail party after Thursday night’s screening of his new film, The Strange Case of Angelica (competing in the Un Certain Regard category), one would never have suspected it.

Indeed, Oliveira, who made his first film in 1931 and has been in competition at Cannes six times (taking home the third-place Jury prize in 1999 for The Letter) appears to be in stellar physical shape: he looks like he could be in his 70s. He also happens to be in good professional shape, having directed at least one movie per year since 1990.

How exactly does he do it?

Simple: “When he was younger, he was a professional gymnast and ran and swam regularly throughout his life,” said Mireia Ibars, a post-production supervisor who has worked with Oliveira twice, including on this last film. “But his sharp mind is even more impressive than his health."

The man himself was not available for comment, but Ibars said that his age is not an issue on the set: “During a shoot, he doesn’t like people running after him and trying to take care of him,” she explained. “He’s precise, knows exactly what he wants, and is in control of everything”.

Oliveira’s mastery of his craft is on ample display in The Strange Case of Angelica, the story of a Jewish photographer (played by Oliveira’s grandson Ricardo Trepa) in modern-day Portugal who falls desperately in love with a dead woman (played by Pilar Lopez de Ayala) whom he photographs and perceives as very much alive.

The film features plenty of Oliveira’s trademarks: an elegantly straightforward visual style full of long takes and still shots; deliberate dialogue that often explicitly articulates the story's themes; bursts of poetic whimsy; and a classical piano score.

The film has been warmly received at Cannes, although there have been grumblings that critics tend to be indulgent with Oliveira because he is a beloved emblem of filmmaking longevity.

As a moviegoing experience, The Strange Case of Angelica is gentle, slow-moving, somewhat stiff, and rather aloof.

But it’s also a distinctive, touchingly old-fashioned piece of work, and unmistakably one made by a director whose life has spanned eras and whose art has endured – and resisted – innovations of technology and style; the film plays in parts like a romantic fable from the 1930s or 40s, or even earlier, from the age of silent movies, transposed to a contemporary setting.

It doesn't necessarily grip you while you watch it, but it lingers with you after the lights go up, and you may find yourself craving a second viewing.

Though the film deals with death, any attempt to read The Strange Case of Angelica as Oliveira’s swan song would seem to be misguided: rumour on the Croisette is that he is already at work on his next project.


Date created : 2010-05-14

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