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FILM-PORTUGAL: Ninety-Nine and Still Going Strong

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Dec 17 2007 (IPS) - On the threshold of 2008, 99-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, the oldest active director in the world, says he has several projects planned for the coming years.

Idolised by connoisseurs of "cinéma d’auteur", in which the director often also writes the screenplay and leaves a powerful signature on the film, de Oliveira’s work is however disliked by the majority of the public, who find his interminably slow scenes indigestible.

He has won more awards than any other Portuguese filmmaker in history, and his international prizes are matched only by those of Italian director Federico Fellini (1920-1993).

Manoel Candido Pinto de Oliveira’s birth certificate gives his date of birth as Dec. 12, 1908, but he says he was actually born the day before, in Oporto in northern Portugal.

De Oliveira says that in the late 1920s, before embarking on his 76-year career as a filmmaker, he wanted to be a circus performer. But he usually avoids talking about the past, and emphasises that he is only interested in concentrating on his future projects.

Reserved and keeping well out of the limelight, de Oliveira lives a simple and quiet life. In his infrequent public statements, he insists that he only directs movies for his own pleasure, and does not care about the opinions of critics.

He dismisses out of hand the fate that seems to be in store for quality Portuguese filmmaking, because of the domination of the market by huge superproductions, in particular from the United States, with their enormous budgets and dazzling special effects.

On one of his few television appearances recently, he talked about the film "Cinco Dias, Cinco Noites" (Five Days, Five Nights) by Portuguese director José Fonseca e Costa, which portrays the 1960 escape from prison of persecuted Portuguese communist leader Álvaro Cunhal and his life on the run in the dense forests in the north of the country.

"Fonseca e Costa’s film shows that it is possible to make high quality films that reach a wide public, with very little money," he said in an interview for the private channel Sociedade Independente de Comunicaçao (SIC).

His first movie was a short documentary, "Douro, Faina Fluvial" (Working on the Douro River, 1931), and his first feature film "Aniki-Bobó" followed in 1942, after a gap of more than a decade. Reviews of the latter were highly uncomplimentary at the time, but experts today consider it a work of art.

None of his films were a commercial success. All of his work has been financed by the state, and according to Portuguese Culture Minister Isabel Pires de Lima, the government will continue to support him until he is 100.

"Only until I’m 100?" he joked to the swarms of journalists surrounding him on his 99th birthday, showing off his sense of humour and young, agile and enviably lucid mind.

Next year, he will celebrate his approaching century with the presentation of his latest film, titled "Cristovao Colombo – O Enigma" (Christopher Columbus, the Enigma), to be premièred in January.

The screenplay is based on the book "Columbus Was Portuguese," published this year by U.S.-Portuguese doctor and historian Manuel Luciano da Silva and his wife Silvia Jorge da Silva.

The book’s authors argue that the supposedly Genovese sailor Cristoforo Colombo, later Admiral Cristóbal Colón in the service of the Spanish crown, who in 1492 happened on the continent now called America in his attempt to reach Asia, was in fact Portuguese, from the southern region of Alentejo.

It is not a scientific or historical film, nor strictly speaking a biography, but rather a fictional romance which evokes the heroic feats of seafaring discoveries, de Oliveira said in a recent communiqué.

The main characters are the young Luciano and Silvia da Silva, living in modern-day New York state, but the film develops to present the novel theory that Columbus was born in the mediaeval Portuguese village of Cuba, in Alentejo.

According to the authors, the admiral may have named the largest Caribbean island "Cuba" in honour of his home town. This theory had previously been aired in the book "O Mistério Colombo Revelado" (Unmasking Columbus: Lies, Spies, Cover-Up and Conspiracy).

The theory that Columbus was Portuguese proposes a list of names that could have been the admiral’s real monikers: Dom Diogo, duke of Viseu, Cristovao de Colos, Salvador Fernandes Zarco, Salvador Gonçalves Zarco and Simão Palha.

At the book launch of "Unmasking Columbus" in October 2006, one of its co-authors, Eric J. Steele, said that everything seems to indicate that Columbus was a Portuguese spy who skillfully diverted exploration by the Spaniards in the wrong direction, leaving the way clear for the Portuguese to find the route to the real India, discovered by Admiral Vasco da Gama in 1498.

The final scenes of the film are set on the island of Porto Santo, one of Portugal’s Madeira Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Columbus married Filipa de Perestrelo, the daughter of the governor of the Madeira Islands, in 1479, and for years studied ocean navigation there, using a keel and a triangular jib to make headway into the wind, techniques known only to the Portuguese at the time.

But this will not be the only film premièred by de Oliveira in his centenary year.

"O estranho caso de Angélica" (The Strange Case of Angelica) based on the novel "Singularidades de uma rapariga loira" by the celebrated 19th century Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz (1845-1900), and "Os Invisiveis", about which no details are available, are two more films he has in production, that are scheduled for release in 2008.

His films have traditionally received more acclaim in countries with an extensive cinematographic culture, where artistic cinema is appreciated, such as France and Italy.

Renowned actors accustomed to receiving large sums for their work, like French actress Catherine Deneuve and Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni (1924-1996), frequently agreed to work under de Oliveira’s direction for the much lower rewards available from the Portuguese government.

In Mastroianni’s last film, shortly before his death, he played de Oliveira himself in "Viagem ao princípio do mondo" (Journey to the Beginning of the World), the director’s autobiography.

The list of de Oliveira’s international awards is impressive. He has won several prizes at the Cannes, Venice, Berlin and San Francisco film festivals.

Among his most distinguished prizes are the Special Golden Lion for the film "Le Soulier de Satin" (The Satin Slipper) and a Career Golden Lion for his entire work, both awarded at the Venice Film Festival in 1985.

At the Cannes and Venice festivals during the 1990s, de Oliveira received distinctions for his total oeuvre that were equivalent to the career awards won by Fellini.

In 1994 at the San Francisco International Film Festival, de Oliveira won the Akira Kurosawa Award, and in 2004, shortly before his 96th birthday, he was awarded the Cineuropa Prize at the film festival in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, in northern Spain.

Portuguese filmmaker Margarida Gil, winner of a Career Award at the Rome International Film Festival in 2005, says that Manoel de Oliveira is the most alive person she knows, a phenomenon of eternal youth, which contributes a childlike element to all his works, rendering them universally appealing.

"Manoel de Oliveira has made too many films for too few spectators," Fonseca e Costa, for his part, told IPS.

In spite of the praise the older director showered on his work, according to Fonseca e Costa, de Oliveira "has only made four beautiful films: ‘Aniki-Bobó’ in the 1940s, ‘A Caça’ (The Hunt) in the 1960s, ‘Vale Abraao’ (Abraham’s Valley) in 1993, and ‘Je Rentre à la Maison’ in 2001."

"Snobbish French, Italian and New York film critics may call de Oliveira a genius, but he gets no applause from the public," he added.

"Unlike Portuguese poet of genius Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), who died in obscurity, poor and alone in his room at the Sao Luis dos Franceses hospital in Lisbon, ignored by politicians, the public and critics, de Oliveira has enjoyed his glory in this life," Fonseca e Costa concluded.

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