“Unhappiness is a form of renouncement; it has nothing to do with disgrace. She is the most torrid of lovers, and for her we’ll sacrifice everything.”1

Fifty years after he first filmed the daily activities of workers on the River Douro, Manoel de Oliveira completed his sixth feature – Francisca (1981). An adaptation of Agustina Bessa-Luís’ novel Fanny Owen (1979), the film was based on a real-life melodrama: the tragic love triangle between the eponymous Francisca ‘Fanny’ Owen, the daughter of a British officer; the Portuguese literary icon Camilo Castelo Branco; and his one-time friend, José Augusto Pinto de Magalhães.2

For Oliveira, Francisca was the culmination of a broader project: four meticulous adaptations (two from plays, two from novels) dealing with the subject of unfulfilled desire. At that point, this “tetralogy of frustrated love”3 constituted his entire cinematic output from the decline of the Estado Novo – a four decade long, proto-Putinesque reign of terror under which many dissident artists like Oliveira had had their careers curtailed.4

Just as the nation from which Francisca emerged was in a state of radical transition, so too was the Portugal in which the narrative takes place. In 1981, a mere six years had passed since Portugal’s first fully free elections. In the mid-19th century (the film’s period setting), the country was in the midst of an earlier wave of liberalisation; absolute monarchy having given way to a negotiated constitution and limited democracy.

Such political concerns exist only on the periphery of Francisca. Nonetheless, the film’s male protagonists are afflicted with a malaise which, the opening intertitles inform us, is rooted in the defeat of their “traditionalist ideals”. These characters have been let down by a failed political movement. But where, say, the conspirators of Out 1, noli me tangere (Jacques Rivette, 1971) are disillusioned by the limits of social progress, Francisca’s José Augusto and Camilo are reactionaries, longing for an older, no longer possible order of things.

That paradoxical desire feeds into the central thematic concern of Oliveira’s film: the perverse, self-destructive urge that lies within all human beings. Perversity abounds in Francisca; not only in the men’s pursuit of Fanny – Camilo’s aim being to conquer a woman he repeatedly declares he doesn’t love; José Augusto’s, even more alarmingly, to “create an angel in the plenitude of martyrdom” – but also in Fanny’s own masochistic complicity with the role José Augusto gives her. And if the ultimate human goal is the pursuit of happiness, what could be more perverse than giving over one’s life to anhedonia?

Much of the early part of the film is dedicated to establishing the friendship (and contempt) shared by José Augusto and Camilo. The focus soon shifts, however, to José Augusto’s infatuation with, abduction of and marriage to Fanny, a young woman upon whom he can project his fantasies of Byronian romantic suffering.

In certain senses, their relationship is reminiscent of those within Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) – with José Augusto as the vampiric predator stealing Fanny’s youth and draining her will to live. But José Augusto’s exploitation of her is sexless, not sexual; his particular brand of cruelty lying in his decision to starve Fanny of intimacy in any form. Where Humbert forces Lolita into the role of nymphet, José Augusto turns Fanny into his ideal woman; his virginal martyr.

It would be a misreading, however, to cast Fanny as the passive victim in this dynamic. As a woman of her time, she is a prisoner of her gender and class, trapped in a diabolical situation once José Augusto rejects her. But she, too, is an ardent reader of Byron, and stoically embraces her own suffering, stating that she loves José Augusto “the way God loves sinners”. Nevertheless, there are cracks in her compliance: in one scene, she angrily confronts José Augusto over his mistreatment of her; in another, she expresses her longing to sexually conquer him. He, in turn, is only able to express remorse after her death, addressing her heart preserved in a vial:

We are broken in pieces and searching for our bodies, which are scattered all over the world. The womb, wanting to forget sin, screams; the kidney, wanting to cling to the right-side rib, moans; and the heart, in a thousand pieces, enters the most miserable alleys, asking for the whereabouts of the blood from which it is made.

While ostensibly a melodrama, Francisca has a strong undertone of comedic absurdity running through it, both in hilariously surreal sequences (for instance, a Catholic wedding ceremony in which legal attorneys stand in for the absent bride and groom) and in stylistic choices. His characters rarely talk to each other, for instance, instead announcing their lines while looking off into the distance (or, occasionally, straight into the camera).

Other techniques are more determinedly experimental. Some shots function as tableaux vivants; in others, whole exchanges of dialogue are immediately repeated, as if to highlight their importance. The lingering impression is that the characters are marionettes in a life-size puppet show.

Such conspicuous artifice is a common feature in Oliveira’s work. It’s a choice that seems especially pertinent in Francisca, however, given its status as a film based on a novel, which is in turn based on contemporaneous written records5 which is in turn based on real-life events. Rather than try to accurately replicate this original reality, Oliveira instead constructs his film like a prism, as if the process of travelling through each filter has rendered the story and its protagonists more and more abstract.6

The real-life Fanny Owen died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, her virginity intact.7 José Augusto Pinto de Magalhães died soon after, either as a result of suicide or an accidental drug overdose.8 Camilo Castelo Branco, then still a young man, became one of the most famous writers in Portuguese history. And in Manoel de Oliveira’s Francisca, their refractions wander across our screen like ghosts, as if in an eternal performance of the words of John Keats: “Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine”.

Francisca (1981 Portugal 166 mins)
Prod. Co:
V.O. Filmes Prod: Paulo Branco Dir: Manoel de Oliveira Scr: Manoel de Oliveira Phot: Elso Roque Ed: Monique Rutler Music: João Paes Prod. Mgr: Ricardo Cordeiro Snd: Jean-Paul Mugel

Cast: Teresa Menezes, Diogo Dória, Mário Barroso, Manuela de Freitas, Glória de Matos



  1. All dialogue quoted is adapted from the English language subtitles created for the film by Karagarga user Sateri.
  2. Randal Johnson, Manoel de Oliveira (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), pp.39-40.
  3. The other films are O Passado e o Presente (The Past and the Present, 1972), Benilde ou a Virgem Mãe (Benilde or the Virgin Mother, 1975) and Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love, 1979), the latter of which was based on a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco.
  4. Johnson (2007), p.3.
  5. Frederick C. H. Garcia, “Fanny Owen by Agustina Bessa Luís,” World Literature Today 55 (Winter 1981).
  6. Dave Kehr makes a similar argument in his book When Movies Mattered (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p.47.
  7. José Manuel Fernandes, “Um concerto de seres livres”, Colecção Mil Folhas 2 31 (December 2002).
  8. Johnson (2007), p.41.

About The Author

David Heslin edits Metro magazine. He formerly edited Screen Education and was a member of the Senses of Cinema editorial team.

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