In July 2001, a little girl crosses thousands of years of civilization, along with her mother, a distinguished history professor, while on their way to meet her father.
So begins Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture (Um Filme Falado, 2003): with promise, a young girl’s first journey of discovery, her initiation into the grandeur of the Western tradition by way of an ocean voyage that will take her east toward the birthplaces of civilisation. It is only fitting, after all, that Oliveira, cinema’s oldest living representative, would want to bequeath to the young Maria Joana (Filipa de Almeida) and to us the rich pageant of our cultural history. But it is not only the shock of the film’s ending that exposes the deficiency of any such notions, the false sense of security that we, as viewers, share with the film’s protagonists. All along the way, as Maria Joana and her mother, Rosa Maria (Leonor Silveira), disembark at successive stops on their odyssey, we begin to discern – in the film’s dispassionate loquaciousness, in the director’s deliberately static camerawork, in the subtle and not-so-subtle ironies that colour the intellectual colloquy between mother and child as they navigate A Talking Picture‘s otherwise childless world – a subversive undercurrent that gradually turns the rich pageant into a full-blown jeremiad, a bittersweet goodbye to the West and its legacy. And by the film’s end, we begin to realise that Oliveira’s reflections upon the past are actually reflections in a different sense: the film’s many reference points in our early history and in the present-day voyage the film depicts stand as mirror-imaged bookends at the extreme ends of a long shelf sinking at a centre no longer able to withstand the pressure of its weighty volumes and illustrious titles.
In the prière d’insérer that appears on the screen at the film’s beginning, we might notice an odd touch: it is the little girl’s journey that is given primacy. She travels “along with her mother” (the Portuguese is closer to “accompanied by her mother”). We might ignore these opening lines but for the fact that the girl’s unique status is repeatedly underlined throughout the film; aside from one or two extras whose very presence one notices in the background only after repeated viewings, she is the only child – in fact the only youthful character – that Oliveira allows into his film prior to the ship’s arrival at Aden, in the Arab world. The West seems old and childless. We are reminded of this on many occasions. As Maria Joana and Rosa Maria go about their travels, they encounter one character after another who is more or less explicitly childless. The old fisherman they speak to when they disembark at Marseilles tells Rosa Maria, as an elderly tour group passes by in the background, that his wife died, he lives alone and his children have grown up and moved away. The Orthodox priest they encounter at the Acropolis may be celibate (1), has the air of a solitary scholar devoted to his studies and pointedly remarks “you have a lovely little girl” to Rosa Maria. The actor they meet in Egypt gives every indication of being an older bachelor. All three of the distinguished older women that board the ship at successive stops along the way admit, during their dinner at the captain’s table, that they are childless, and the Italian model Francesca (Stefania Sandrelli) says to Rosa Maria, “I envy you because I think it’s wonderful to have a daughter.” The Polish-American Captain John Walesa (John Malkovich) is likewise childless, casting himself as an eternal bachelor. Thus, if Maria Joana is special, if the history lesson and the film are primarily hers, she is certainly burdened with an awesome responsibility as the single vessel capable of preserving the legacy of the past for the future. Like the precarious Sisyphean quest of the small dog she pets at Marseilles, who is left as the only anchor of a boat dragged again and again by the unrelenting current out into the sea, her daunting destiny seems to leave us close to the edge. In her hands alone the future is fragile, and in her serious tone and expression, her remarkably adult mien, she seems to convey a preconscious knowledge of the enormity of the undertaking. As the Greek singer and actress Helen (Irene Papas) observes, family creates “the obligation to survive”.
But Maria Joana does not survive, putting the film’s darker undercurrents in stark relief. These were there from the very beginning, of course, certainly of the film, perhaps, as well, of human history as the film conceives of it, as we will have occasion to discuss later. The very first image of the film, after all, is of well-wishers waving goodbye. The departing travellers echo their gesture. Then they part, leaving Maria Joana and Rosa Maria standing alone on shipboard, gazing into the mist ahead of them. “Look at this mist! What a pity! If it gets worse, you won’t see the monument to the Discoveries”, Rosa Maria says. Our journey has just begun, and the itinerary has already been compromised: the monument is in danger of being lost in the mist, lost to Maria Joana, lost to history. “On a misty morning like this”, Rosa Maria tells her daughter, will emerge, out of the murk and riding a white horse, a shrouded figure, the mythologised Portuguese King Sebastian, a hero to save Portugal and lead it on to the glories of the Fifth Empire (this element of the Portuguese and Muslim legend is also the title of Oliveira’s newest film, The Fifth Empire [O Quinto Império] ). “And will he really?” Maria Joana asks. “There are those who believed he will, but it’s only a myth”, her mother answers. There are many stories like this that the film presents: of heroes, protectors and goddesses, all receding mistily into the realm of ruin, myth and legend. There is the myth of mermaids “who swim alongside the ships to encourage the sailors to explore the unknown.” There is the myth of muses who inspired poets. There is the Virgilian legend of an egg in a golden cage placed by a mermaid under a castle in Naples. We see the site of the sea near the castle at first mediately, through two taxi windows, and never get to see it in any detail. Rosa Maria tells Maria Joana that Virgil wrote, “While the egg shall exist, Naples will thrive and prosper.” “And now?” Maria Joana asks her mother. “And now we go back to the taxi”, her mother responds, misunderstanding her daughter’s question and failing to dispel her fears. There is the faded mosaic of a dog at Pompeii believed to protect the owner’s house. There is the myth of the gargantuan statue of Athena inside the Parthenon overlooking and protecting her city, who once (but no longer?), Rosa Maria informs us, inspired “the wisdom of the philosophers, playwrights, poets and musicians.” The Orthodox priest tells the protagonists that this “statue of legend disappeared and nobody ever heard of it again”, an odd turn of phrase, which means, perhaps, that it was the legend that disappeared rather than the statue. A second real statue of Athena, less grandiose than its legendary namesake, was “removed” and taken east. Maria Joana is left baffled and worried: “Was there really such a goddess?” she asks. Her mother disillusions her: “No, only a statue, actually two.” “Can you steal a goddess?” the girl persists. “And the city, was it left unprotected?” she asks soon after. “No, the Greeks protect Greece”, her mother answers, and it does not sound terribly reassuring. Finally, in Egypt, Oliveira lingers on the silent, broken face of the great Sphinx guarding the Great Pyramids of Giza, another legendary guardian turned to ruin, battered by time. We are left with the sense of a civilisation that no longer believes in its own protective myths, that no longer believes in its own survival. If I’m Going Home (Je rentre à la maison) (2001) was a kind of personal goodbye by Oliveira, A Talking Picture may be his way of saying goodbye to an entire civilisation.
The past is ubiquitous, but it has grown terribly distant. In Marseilles the fact of ancient Greek origins is left to the meagre tale told by a commemorative plaque. At Pompeii, Rosa Maria flips through a book of postcard reconstructions to show her daughter how Pompeii would have looked before its destruction, but its completeness is there only in pictures. “See how beautiful it must have been?” Rosa Maria says to Maria Joana as they survey the Acropolis, as though she were speaking of a feeling that the present-day monument can no longer evoke. In Istanbul, we see St Sophia, once a cathedral, then a mosque, now a museum with faded frescos, where no one has prayed in many years. Oliveira’s camera lingers on the monuments, even after the people have passed out of his shots, as if all humanity has gone, leaving these great ruins mute and abandoned to history. Yet they stand also as an indictment, ponderous, massive, silent, incomprehensible, bearing down with the weight of “4000 years of history” as, we are told, Napoleon instructed his soldiers when they stood before the pyramids of Egypt. Keats’ words to his Grecian urn might well be uttered to any of Oliveira’s monuments: “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! / When old age shall this generation waste / Thou shall remain in midst of other woe / Than ours.” “We’ve been visiting these magical places around the Mediterranean”, Rosa Maria tells the Portuguese actor she meets in Egypt (Luís Miguel Cintra playing himself), evoking simultaneously the mystical grandeur of what they have seen and its mythical, and hence, imaginary status; the buildings themselves are disappearing in the mist as surely as the real counterpart of the legendary statue of Athena. They have become merely magical.
But the loss of the past goes beyond monuments. At the dinner below deck Helen, who is accorded some measure of priority among the three illustrious women (the Captain calls her “the envy of any rival”), expresses a sense of great betrayal and laments the loss of her language: “Greece was the cradle of our civilisation…Greek is spoken only in Greece…It is a civilisation which has been forgotten.” “There’s nothing more comfortable than to speak one’s own language”, says Francesca. “Which is not the case in the E.C.”, the Captain notes. “These days almost everyone speaks English”, he adds later. But the international businesswoman Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) observes that there are no true Americans except “the Indians”, in response to which the Captain must concede that he is not a Native American. “The English language has colonised the world”, Helen adds but qualifies that “it was not the basis of our civilisation.” The colloquy suggests that there is something illegitimate about the global domination of the deracinated American tongue, about the fact that Greek, the birth language of Western civilisation, has been relegated to the cultural periphery while a tongue not native to the very soil from where it now exerts in cultural dominion has come to be the universal language of the Western and even the non-Western world. Exacerbating the problem is that English, in association with American hegemony, is commonly thought to have spread because it was the international language of commerce, not culture. Globalisation and the loss of identifiable local culture is, thereby, linked to the loss of culture as such, another form of history receding. Significant, in this connection, is that while the captain and three women at his table have no barriers in their communication, none but the captain understand Oliveira and his protagonists’ native Portuguese, suggesting that the economically poor Portugal is still not a full-fledged member of the global community. This characterisation finds support in Alexander Sokurov’s Father and Son (Otets i syn) (2003), another (and no less ambivalent) film that touches, however obliquely, on the incursions of globalisation and which Sokurov filmed, in part, in Lisbon because it is, according to him, “not yet spoilt by the wave of globalisation and has not yet become a global village” (2), “though in a few years it will be wasted, laundered, a typical European city” (3). Likewise, in Oliveira’s own film Voyage to the Beginning of the World (Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo) (1997), Portugal is imagined as an isolated corner of the world lost to time, where the people live a lifestyle unchanged by the incursions of modern technology.
But upon further reflection, the seamless communication among the three non-Portuguese women and the captain is not exactly a typical attack upon globalisation as eradication of cultural differences. After all, prior to the introduction of Rosa Maria and Maria Joana into their company, the women and the captain each speak their own languages. A scenario of this sort could have some meagre measure of plausibility if it were limited to a cross-pollination of English, French and Italian among the speakers, but the fact that all appear to understand modern Greek introduces an element of the nearly fantastical. Delphine herself observes that “we express ourselves not in a normal way”, though Francesca counters that “it all seems so natural.” But it does not seem natural to us, and when Helen offers her view, that “among educated women there are no barriers”, her focus on class issues has more of a ring of truth to it. A similar dynamic reoccurs when the captain blithely remarks to his guests that “the three of [them] should join together and create a more harmonious Tower of Babel in which we’d all speak one language and live forever under the shadow of the tree of goodness.” All laugh, but Delphine immediately and strikingly suggests that if they were to undertake the project, she “would quickly open another supermarket or a warehouse or something.” Thus, the captain’s utopian fantasy of transcendence of linguistic and cultural barriers through the extension of culture itself – where everyone would speak his own language but understand all, thereby making all languages one in the most benign sense – is quickly brought into the fold of globalisation, the more compromised dream of transcendence of linguistic and cultural divisions through the extension of global capital. And, indeed, Delphine, the businesswoman, is introduced by the captain as the “head of an empire”; she herself says “I don’t have time to waste dreaming.” The only empire left, it seems, has a distinctly unspiritual, a distinctly commercial character. Moreover, even this empire stands on shaky ground, lacking as it does a strong sense of the solidity of its own cultural and ideological foundations: when the captain refers to “this little game of denouncing ourselves” that he and his guests play around the dinner table, we get the sense that he might as well be speaking of a game the West itself has been playing at least since the beginning of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, though having roots in the period of questioning of cultural and aesthetic canons that began with the counterculture movements of earlier decades.
Thus, the captain’s dream of a collapse-of-Babel-defying paradise is destined to fail and does fail spectacularly at the end of the film. The indications that this failure will come, both as the fate of the girl and her mother and, more globally, as the fate of Western civilisation, are present throughout A Talking Picture. We are reminded repeatedly throughout the characters’ discussions of history that wisdom, knowledge and civilisation itself are and have always been Faustian bargains, as Oliveira makes explicit in The Convent (O Convento) (1995). The introduction of knowledge into the world is, in the Western tradition, always concomitant with sin, and humanity’s aspiration to build skyscraping towers holds within it the seeds of fragmentation and ruin. The captain refers to “all [the world’s] modern and ancient ills which originated in Babel.” Helen corrects him: “The sins of the fathers fall upon the sons. Long before the Tower of Babel, it all started with original sin.” But the “it” is not limited to humanity’s ills; it is civilisation itself. Speaking of the history between the Arabs and the West, Rosa Maria tells her daughter that “there were many wars”. When Maria Joana asks whether many people died, her mother answers, “Lots. But that is how nations are born.” Sitting by the Egyptian pyramids, Rosa Maria defines civilisation as “what man creates and develops over the course of time by using their intelligence.” The pyramids, she tells Maria Joana, were built by the Egyptians “precisely because they were civilised people and because they believed in life after death.” But she also explains to her daughter that the pharaohs employed slaves in the pyramids’ construction. “Is that why they were civilised?” the girl asks. “No, that’s not why they were civilised”, her mother answers. “There are other reasons. The history of civilisation is made up of these contradictions.” One such contradiction occurs in the story of the building of the Suez Canal. Rosa Maria and the actor she meets in Egypt exult in the creation of the canal by means of human labour. “Amazing!” she says, “and all realised by the force of man.” She explains to her daughter how the digging of the canal connected East and West, whereas before it had taken Vasco de Gama a full year to sail to India. But in Oliveira’s conception, the fruit of man’s labour, while making possible such glorious achievements, also sows the seeds of human destruction, as it is precisely the possibility of a closer interchange between East and West that puts the two on a more certain collision course that culminates in the tragedy of the film’s ending.
In fact, that interchange and that conflict are broached repeatedly throughout A Talking Picture. If the Biblical notion of original sin constitutes the mythopoetic underpinning behind the poison seed underlying human achievement, then the history of the conflict between East and West is surely its worldly implementation. In that history is both a legacy of rich cultural symbiosis and a clash of civilisations reaching back millennia, to our very first major work of literature, the epic of conflict between Aegean Greeks and the Trojans of Asia Minor. From the film’s earliest moments, we are initiated into this storied engagement. One of the first monuments we see commemorates the discovery of the sea route to India, which is also the protagonists’ intended destination. We hear, then, of King Sebastian who fought the Moors in his quest to convert the world to Christianity. We hear about the island of Ceuta, passing back and forth between Christian and Muslim hands. At Marseilles, the very next port of call, the fisherman informs Rosa Maria that nearby there are “oil reserves…in case there is a war and reserves for cars…a real plague.” “As you say, it is a plague. We can’t live today without oil”, she says in answer. “We can’t turn the clock back”, he returns, underlining the notion that a seed of destruction is already in place, a notion Oliveira has broached in earlier works such as Voyage to the Beginning of the World, where there is likewise talk of perpetual wars in the East and a world poisoned at the root. In Athens, we are told of the real statue of Athena being carried off to the East. In Istanbul, we hear of St. Sophia turning from a cathedral to a mosque, with the principal axis of worship being reoriented from Jerusalem to Mecca. In Egypt, we are reminded of the presence of Napoleon’s troops on this soil and of the construction of the Suez Canal. Then, during the multilingual conversation at dinner, Helen expostulates upon the role of the Arabs in the transmission and destruction of Western culture: speaking of the “universal library at Alexandria”. She says:
But what I find most curious is the case of the Arabs who, having spread Greek culture in Europe and beyond, were the ones to destroy it, burning all the books in the blindness of their religious fervour…However, the Arabs also founded a great culture. Now it is decadent. What haunts the Arab world nowadays is the development of the West with its many technical advances and scientific progress.
Later the Arabs are portrayed by Rosa Maria as a wronged and slighted race cast out into the desert, having their origin in antiquity, the offspring of Ishmael, the illegitimate child of Abraham and his slavegirl. Finally, Rosa Maria and Maria Joana’s undoing, and with it that of Western civilisation, comes at the hands of terrorists who plant a “time bomb” on the ship when it is docked at Aden, and moreover, when Maria Joana runs back to her cabin to retrieve the veiled Islamic doll given to her by the captain, the same doll used by Rosa Maria to explain to her daughter the origin of war and human conflict.
But all the way through, despite these many warnings, we are carried along and reassured by the cosmopolitan pleasantness of Rosa Maria, her sensible responses to her daughter’s seemingly naive and precocious questions. When the girl becomes frightened that the disappearance of the statue of Athena has left Greece unprotected, her mother assures her that “the Greeks protect Greece.” When Maria Joana asks whether the Christians and Muslims are still at war, Rosa Maria says, “No, no. That was in the middle ages.” “Which middle ages are we in now?” the girl returns. Her mother patiently corrects her misimpression. The captain, too, joins in the tone of reassurance, telling the girl, on one occasion, that no one will take her doll, and later, undermining any sense of urgency among the others when he says, despite the presence of the time bomb on shipboard, “we still have time”, a proposition belied by subsequent developments. At another point in the film, as Maria Joana watches the scene of frolic and laughter at the captain’s table, she asks, “Why are they all so jolly, Mommy?” “Perhaps, it’s someone’s birthday,” Rosa Maria speculates.
Indeed, the daughter’s questions suggest that there is something excessively triumphalist about the tenor of both her mother’s confident equanimity and of the celebratory airs put on by the captain and his guests. The captain and his women do behave as though it were someone’s birthday, at least for a little while as they contemplate the prospect of a glorious reconstitution of civilisation to be ruled over by women. “I think women should rule the world and cure it of all its modern and ancient ills”, the captain says. It is true that the history that we have seen presented in the film is one forged, or, as the case may be, perpetrated primarily by men, quick to act and to fight. The three women express some measure of scepticism about men’s capacity to erect a liveable world order. After observing that there are no barriers among educated women, Helen adds, a bit uncertainly, “and men too, I hope.” Francesca says, “Frankly, I don’t know.” Adds Delphine, “The E.C. was set up by men and look at the result. Imagine how different it would be, how we would live in peace if the world was ruled by women” (4). From this exchange emerges the captain’s utopian dream of a polity not limited by the lessons of Babel, with the fateful Tree of Knowledge replaced by a fabulous Tree of Goodness. As we have already had occasion to observe, that fantasy is short-lived.
It is unsustainable, in part, because the very same frenetic activity associated with the rule of men and the rule of violence is part and parcel of the workings of human ingenuity that comprises the basis for the possibility of historical progress. As Helen remarks, “Politics creates civilisation, and action creates history.” But if A Talking Picture has shown us anything at all, it has certainly not been action. Rather, the film seems deliberately purged of passion, violence, and even basic human emotion. Francesca declares that “passion makes prisoners of women” and calls love “a tyrant”. Helen says that “at times it is unbearable”. The verbose captain also speaks of his desire to avoid the fate of love. The core of the interaction between mother and daughter may be best characterised as an exchange of information. The girl is remarkably composed, adult-like in everything but the innocence of her questions. There is nary a moment of tension between mother and daughter, and but for that introduced into the film by the gift of the doll, not a single expression of self-interested desire. The conversations between the mother and the travellers and locals she meets along the way are similarly subdued, largely intellectual and abstract. The camerawork is flat. The shots are nearly stills – talking pictures – mitigated only by the slightest, most measured movements. Even the sole image of progress, the slicing of the ship’s prow through the water, is stripped of any propulsive force it might have had by virtue of being repeated and extended outward in time on six occasions over the course of the film, becoming, thereby, a mere placeholder indicating a transition from port to port along the journey’s course. The bulk of the film consists of speech, not action, a point made apparent by the film’s title. Even when calamity is inevitable and action is clearly called for, the captain begins to unbutton his jacket at a pace that is hopelessly inadequate to the task at hand. “It is too late”, his ensign informs him and us. The time bomb is ready to explode. As Helen said at dinner, “No civilisation lasts for ever.” Only in Aden, while the mother, daughter and captain stroll amongst the wares at their leisurely pace, do we see the Arabic children and veiled Muslim women flashing by hurriedly. If action still exists anywhere in the world, it is no longer in the West.
This is not the first time that Oliveira has portrayed a disconnect between speech and action, a sense of speech and action out of sync. In his masterly Rite of Spring (Acto de Primavera) (1963), a passion play sans passion, Oliveira depicted characters for whom the Christian teaching had ceased to have a living meaning and purpose, who were reciting words whose meanings they barely comprehended. In that film, as well, an image of a great explosion appeared at the end as a kind of comeuppance for societal failure. But whereas in Rite of Spring the characters hardly understood even their own words, in A Talking Picture, they understand themselves and each other only too well, making the irony all the greater: words have strayed so far from their Greek roots that they have become merely descriptive, useful only as a means of conveying information or conducting a guided tour.
In fact, A Talking Picture is, in its entirety, a kind of guided tour, a series of talking pictures. It is a far cry from the original image of a sea voyage in the Western tradition. Indeed, the film is a reversal, a mirror image of The Odyssey. (Ulysses himself is mentioned early on in the film by Rosa Maria.) As in The Odyssey, we are confronted in A Talking Picture with a fateful, meandering sea voyage of reconciliation through Mediterranean waters and, as in The Odyssey, the two travellers of A Talking Picture come upon a series of diversions along the way (and, as in The Odyssey, to be diverted may be the point). But instead of Odysseus travelling west to return home to his wife and child, in A Talking Picture the wife and child leave home to go east, toward the absent father. Instead of the dangerous temptresses that confront Odysseus along the way, Rosa Maria must turn back the more benign advances of the captain and the Portuguese actor, though like Odysseus, Rosa Maria is not steadfast in her refusals. Instead of Athena, the goddess protector who leads Odysseus ever onward through every obstacle on his way, in A Talking Picture we are constantly being reminded that the gods and protectors are gone, that Athena herself, statue and goddess alike, has disappeared; thus, while Odysseus completes his journey, Rosa Maria and Maria Joana fail to reach their destination. And instead of a character returning home from war, the characters in A Talking Picture seem to be inching ever closer toward war, whether it be their personal calamity or the spectre of September 11 a mere two months away in time, as pointedly specified by the July 2001 date of the opening quotation. Even the series of events that lead to the Trojan War are echoed in the film, as Paris’ fateful choice among Athena, Hera and Aphrodite is transformed into the “little game of denouncing ourselves” played by the emasculated captain with the three worldly women of Europe, the model Francesca explicitly identified with Aphrodite, the businesswoman Delphine the parallel of Hera and the singer and actress Helen the counterpart of Athena. Moreover, the three “goddesses” are far from young, the prospective suitor seems unwilling or unable to choose among them and the rival for his affections cast in the role of Aphrodite exhibits an unbecoming tendency to denounce love. It is not, surprising, therefore, that in this reprisal of the Trojan War, the East is winning.
With these Homeric reversals firmly in mind, and recalling the inversion of the condition of Babel and original sin that the captain and his guests momentarily attempt, we are finally in position to understand A Talking Picture as a kind of vision of Armageddon, a reversal of all of Western culture’s most essential foundations. For though there may be many ways of depicting the End, only by alluding to the Beginning can an artist bring us the sense of bookends, of certain closure that we need to understand what has befallen us. If the beginning of creation “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, it is only fitting that the Word figures prominently in the End as well, even if the Word that remains seems wholly severed from its union with and incarnation as divinity, even if it is closer in spirit to Hamlet’s despondent “words, words, words.” And if Oliveira’s own beginnings in film, as the last living director active in the silent era, were silent, it is only fitting that as his stunning and age-defying career draws to its close, he should choose to draw attention to the very fact that this picture of his can talk, portraying speech itself, and certainly its excess, as a kind of decadent luxury. And it is likewise fitting, irony of ironies, that the final unforgettable image of A Talking Picture should be a frozen expression of stunned silence.
- Celibacy is voluntary for Orthodox priests.
- Birgit Beumers, “Alexander Sokurov: Father and Son”, Kinokultura, July 18, 2003.
- Gerald Peary, “Sokurov Speaks”, The Boston Phoenix, July 9–15, 2004.
- That the result of female hegemony would not, in fact, be very different from the status quo is made apparent to us in an exchange from Oliveira’s Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraão) (1993). “It is women who should rule the world”, one character says, which is shortly followed by the response, “They do it as well and as badly as men”.