Visita ou Memórias e Confissões is Manoel de Oliveira’s lasting cinematic elegy: a visit to a house filled with evidence of a life well lived, an exploration of memories that permeate through spaces and objects of importance. Filmed in 1981 when the director was 73 years old, it remained unreleased until his death. I like to imagine it was kept in a vault somewhere, surrounded and comforted by welcoming cinematic memories. Now, having returned, it acts as his final breath. It is a film “on the subject of a house”, as de Oliveira says candidly in the film, lamenting the imminent loss of a dwelling in Porto where he and his family lived since 1942. A house – even one built personally and imbued with 40 years of life itself – doesn’t help keep you alive. This is a philosophical meditation, a means of bidding farewell to his home and making a plea for its preservation in his memory.
It is here, on screen, that the house is preserved, in that eternal museum of memories that is the cinema. Following a restful introduction on a wooden garden fence beneath drapes of green foliage, the gate opens, and the camera slowly tracks through into the grounds of a house. Closed windows and open doors are motifs threaded through the film, mirroring this first image. They serve as the way into spaces, through openings, to search within histories. But they also offer the way out, providing opportunity for escape and for loss. The narrators Teresa Madruga and Diogo Dória trace this as a pattern of experience. As the camera roams through the house, they say, “There’s nobody here, there never was, it’s all in our minds.” This echoes throughout Visita in de Oliveira’s reflections, in the gestures of the camera. Paintings dot the walls, and the house is very much lived in, a warm and welcoming space. And yet, no one is seen for a long time. In place of people, ghosts manifest in objects: in a collection of shells displayed on a bureau, indoor plants, paintings, sculptures, in the delicate glass flowers like those my grandmother used to have, too. Ghosts of the Portugal’s torrid political history also haunt the walls, echoing Salazar’s reign and de Oliveira’s brief imprisonment.
Elliot Stein writes that Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love, 1979), released only a few years before the filming of Visita, “is a vast and strange symphony composed entirely of chamber music.”1 At barely an hour – and accompanied by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 – Visita is well under the average duration for a de Oliveira film, but conceptually it is as vast as them all. Describing the Porto house, the narrators speak of ships, seas, horizons, gangways, using this metaphorical imagery to anchor de Oliveira’s understanding of his house and of his life. The simple maritime imagery evokes the sensation of moving and morphing in the distance, of experiences as regenerative as the ocean, as lasting as night and day.
In the final segment, while de Oliveira leaves his house, he doesn’t truly depart from the idea of his home, or divert far from the personal cinematic essay. Through images and footage from his own family archive, he explores the decrepit structure of the house his father built, in which he was born. He shows old photographs of the structure and replays old footage from family home videos from his childhood, and his children’s early years. His wife, Maria Isabel, warmly confirms that Manoel “lives the cinema”, although it is clear that family was just as central in his life. And his film creations all came from his simple, small desk on the upper floor, from treatments written at his typewriter. Sounds of a film projector click along the soundtrack, the warm ghostlike resonances of a past on film, and a past being recorded.
It ends with de Oliveira walking through a deserted, now-shuttered Tobis Portuguesa film studio, where he frequently worked. The camera frames him from up high, illustrating his command of the cinematic apparatus, his presence as the grain of creation, and his isolation in the Portuguese industry. It almost recalls the final sequence of The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, 1976) – made a few years earlier in Hollywood – and Robert De Niro’s walk as a melancholy Irving Thalberg into a dark, empty lot at his film studio. These empty spaces signify the loss of tangibility from filmmakers’ lives. Their memories are held, intangibly, in their films. From the typewriter placed poetically at a window in de Oliveira’s home to this grand studio space, Visita pays a visit to these spectral histories.
“Fiction is the true reality of the cinema,” de Oliveira proposes in Visita. In an interview from 1981, he says:
My documentaries are as realist as can be; they are concerned with reality itself. On the other hand, my fiction films are very markedly fictional. Realism falsifies life, since it tries to stand for the authentic, which of course it cannot be.2
Which does this film belong to more? It is not quite a documentary, but is it reality? It is about darkness in the contours of memories and confessions, and it is pushing at the very idea of the real. Is experience only memory, after all? Perhaps, then, this is a film whose purpose is made doubly relevant because of its form and the way it was released: posthumously, in memorandum. A film about a return to life, a remembrance of the living. It is a tale of everlasting ghosts.
Visita ou Memórias e Confissões/Visit or Memories and Confessions (1982/2015 Portugal 68 mins)
Prod. Co: Instituto Português de Cinema Dir: Manoel de Oliveira Scr: Agustina Bessa-Luís, Manoel de Oliveira Phot: Elso Roque Mus: Raúl Lavista Ed: Manoel de Oliveira, Ana Luísa Guimarães Sound: Joaqim Pinto
Cast: Manoel de Oliveira, Maria Isabel de Oliveira, Teresa Madruga (narrator), Diogo Dória (narrator)