Viagem is a road movie of sorts. Three actors and an aging director, on a day off from making an unnamed film, are being driven across Northern Portugal. Oliveira himself plays their chauffeur. The ostensible reason for their journey is for Afonso, a Frenchman of Portuguese descent, to visit his father’s native village, Lugar do Teso, which Afonso knows only from stories, and meet his aunt, his only direct relative left in Portugal. Afonso’s story, based on that of real-life actor Yves Afonso, only takes centre stage in the second half of the film. The first part is dominated by the experiences of the director Manoel. The group stops at a series of locations that evoke memories of Manoel’s youth, listen to his reminiscences and debate questions of personal and national identity and history. The other two actors are Duarte, prompter of questions and source of information about Portugal and Judite, whose beauty, youth and wilfulness contrast with Manoel’s frailty, age and wistful reflections.
No appreciation of Manoel de Oliveira’s films, it seems, can avoid mentioning the director’s longevity. Born in 1908, Oliveira made his first film in 1931 and, aged well over 100, is still active at the time of writing. Besides inspiring awe, Oliveira’s age is also a reminder that the particular characteristics of his work – anti-realism, self-reflexivity, disinterest in the kinetic – stem from an experience of cinema almost coterminous with the medium itself. Nowhere is the director’s elderliness more pertinent than in Viagem ao princípio do mundo, with its themes of aging, memory, origins and identity.
The role of Manoel turned out to be Mastroianni’s last, a fact that both adds poignancy to his performance and reinforces the metafilmic dimensions of Viagem. Mastroianni, sporting Oliveira’s first name, his trademark floppy brimmed hat and appropriate biographemes, is presented as an alter ego of the director. The mise-enscène reinforces this proxy status when, at one point, Oliveira appears in the background aligned with Mastroianni’s character. The shadowy presence of the director in what Bénard da Costa calls Oliveira’s ‘most autobiographical film’ (in Overhoff Ferreira, 2008: 40) invites us to consider the relation between auteur and creation, experience and memory, reality and diegesis. In a mind-spinning parallel, the reason the real-life Yves Afonso’s visited Portugal was to play a chauffeur in the film O Desejado by Paulo Rocha.
First stop for the group is Caminha, a small town on the banks of the river Minho, which forms the northern border between Portugal and Spain. Manoel had once attended boarding school on the far bank. Of note here is that, at first, the party cannot see the school across the waters. It is too far away. Only when the chauffeur brings Manoel a pair of binoculars can he discern the building and begin the process of recollection. Film, and art in general, Oliveira seems to be suggesting, are powerful technologies for multiplying the force of memory. At the same time, in a doleful paradox that runs throughout the film, the reality which memory records (however subjectively) is as irrecoverable as youth is to the aged. This idea is later rendered visually when the group visit the Grande Hotel do Pezo, a deluxe hotel when Manoel was young but now little more than a derelict shell. While they visit its grounds, Manoel reaches up to pluck a flower growing from the overhanging branch of a tree but is unable to raise his arm high enough. If the Grande Hotel do Pezo scene asks us to consider the parallels between ruins, memories and the aging body, it is also where the theme of saudade is first broached openly, when Manoel quotes a verse by a little-known Brazilian poet. Said to be an untranslatable word for a universally felt concept, saudade evokes ideas of melancholy, longing and nostalgia. Whether this emotion is universal or not, it pervades Viagem.
The group’s discussions at the boarding school and the Grande Hotel do Pezo raise issues surrounding the relationship of mnemonics to place and of identity to the body. It is common in Oliveira films for a character to conceive a sort of motto or axiom that is then repeated at key moments. In Viagem, this function is performed by Duarte’s tongue-twisting comment that ‘un temps sépare un autre temps qui avec le temps devient présent’ (which is rendered prosaically in the subtitles as ‘between eras there lies a time which becomes the present’). This question of the relationship between the past and the present is crucial to Viagem, as it is to most of Oliveira’s later work.
Just as recurrent in his filmography is an interrogation of the link within cinema between word and image. The discussions woven around the various episodes of the first half of the film and the interaction between the characters that takes place in the interior of their vehicle are echoed and expanded by scenes that function as visual metaphors. The most recurrent is that of the road sliding away behind the car. Shot with a fixed camera, the movement takes place uniquely within the frame as so often in Oliveira’s films. Seen from the rear-view perspective of the chauffeur, this image has many symbolic resonances: the march of time, the orientation of experience and the unspooling of film itself.
Words and image come together most powerfully in a scene where the party stops off to visit a statue Manoel remembers from his youth. It still stands, though its position has changed and it has been vandalised, a status that figures both the persistence and fragility of memory. As the group stares up at the statue, which represents a kneeling figure carrying a heavy beam of wood, a passing countrywoman tells them its history. The figure has a folk poem associated with it: ‘Eu sou o Pedro Macau/E às costas tenho um pau/Aqui passa muito patego/Uns de focinho branco. outros de focinho negro/Mas ninguém me tira deste degredo’ (My name is Pedro Macau/And I have a beam on my back/Many pass by here/Some whitenosed, some black/But none of them sets me free). Though Afonso is greatly moved by the figure – in exile high up on a wall, shouldering a burden no one can share – he is unable to understand the woman’s explanation in Portuguese and has to rely upon his friends to translate. Judite later tries to teach him the poem in Portuguese but he is only able to repeat the translation in French. The local woman is bemused to discover the actor is ‘um homem) estangeiro’ (a foreign man). Afonso’s emotional fascination yet cultural distance introduces the themes of rurality and cosmopolitanism, ethnic identity and cultural misunderstanding that dominate the second half of the film.
After the scene at the derelict hotel, Afonso tells Manoel that, fascinating as his memories have been, they bear no relation to the story of his father, in another telling parallelism also called Manoel. The director belongs to a privileged bourgeoisie that formed only a tiny percentage of the population. Afonso’s father, born in a remote village, experiencing the hardships of agricultural life before seeking a better existence abroad, is perhaps more representative of the countless Portuguese who have emigrated ever since the first caravels left Lisbon.
When the party arrives in Lugar do Teso, Afonso’s aunt refuses to believe the stranger is her nephew as he ‘não fala a nossa fala’ (a rusticated form of ‘he cannot speak our language’). The various members of the party intercede in Portuguese on Afonso’s behalf, as does Maria’s daughter-in-law, herself a Frenchwoman, but to no avail. The fact that Afonso is a famous actor in France makes no impression at all on the old lady. At no point do their worlds seem to touch. At length, Afonso rolls up his sleeve and asks his aunt to touch his arm, to feel their shared blood. On one level, this scene is a testament to the powerful effect of perceived ancestral ties. On the other, despite the emotional visits to the house where his father was born and the cemetery where his ancestors are buried, we can wonder whether Afonso has achieved his aim of better understanding the father who, we learn, died young. Before Afonso leaves, Maria asks him to bring his brother Yves (the other half of the real-life Yves Afonso?) to visit her before she dies. We are left in doubt as to whether this visit will ever occur.
It is important to bear in mind the ambiguity of the titular words ‘princípio do mundo’. In Portuguese, ‘princípio’ means both ‘beginning’ and ‘principle’. If Maria’s life in Lugar do Teso represents an earlier, premodern world from which our modern day emerged, the fate of all the characters (Manoel so close to death, Afonso able to visit but not inhabit his origins, Maria perhaps the last generation of true peasants) display the ‘principle’ of a world conditioned by entropy.
Romney has called Viagem an ‘unsentimental enquiry into an endangered national identity’ (1998: 33). While the subordinate position of the Portuguese language and culture in the world system is often referenced – significantly almost all of the dialogue takes place in French – we might think instead that the fragile identity is in fact Afonso’s, the second-generation immigrant caught between his life and his history, unable to speak Portuguese but gripped by saudade. Neither Duarte nor Judite evince any lack of cultural confidence. At several points in the film the spectre of the war in ex-Yugoslavia is evoked, establishing a resonance between the existential anxiety of the individual and the tragic political events preceding the film. Here Viagem hints at the dangers attendant when atavism displaces culture. Can the fiction of blood underwrite a stable identity? Or is its fragility what prompts tribalism’s violence against the Other?
Viagem has divided critical opinion. Johnson holds that, though ‘Manoel’s journey to the beginning of the world is a journey towards death’, Oliveira’s film ‘does not end on a sombre note. Rather it recognises death as the last act of life, which is characterised by multiple and constant transformations and modulations around a core whose roots are deeper than one might realise’ (2007: 102). Wheeler Dixon, on the other hand, argues that ‘Oliveira’s initial vision of the world as a kind, forgiving entity is gradually transformed into a landscape of primitive violence, in which the dreams of youth are crushed by the burdens of history, poverty and hopelessness’ (2005). One way of deciding how we read the film as a whole is to form a judgment of the short final scene. We find Afonso in his dressing room getting ready for the film he has come to Portugal to make. Dressed in costume traditional to his father’s region, with a false moustache pasted to his lip, he is a simulacrum of Pedro Macau. As he strikes the statue’s pose and intones its poem, the other members of the group burst out laughing at his seriousness. Afonso remarks that no one tells stories like that of Pedro Macau. He then looks into the mirror and says ‘Toi non plus, Afonso. T’es pas tout à fait le meme’ (You neither, Afonso. You’re not quite the same). The story concludes with Afonso talking to the director. Viagem has come to an end; the film outside the film is yet to begin.
Paul Melo e Castro
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Portugal, France. Production Company: Madragoa Filmes and Gemini Filmes. Director: Manoel de Oliveira. Producer: Paulo Branco. Screenwriter: Manoel de Oliveira. Cinematographer: Renato Berta. Music: Emmanuel Nunes. Editor: Valérie Loiseleux. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Manoel), Leonor Silveira (Judite), JeanYves Gautier (Afonso), Diogo Dória (Duarte), Isabel de Castro (Maria Afonso), Cécile Sanz de Alba (Cristina), Isabel Ruth (Olga), José Pinto (José Afonso), Manoel de Oliveira (the chauffeur).]
Randal Johnson, Manoel de Oliveira, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Carolin Overhoff Ferreira, On Manoel de Oliveira, London, Wallflower, 2008.
Winston Wheeler Dixon, ‘Voyage to the Beginning of the World’, Senses of Cinema, issue 37, 20th October 2005. Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/ 2005/cteq/voyage_beginning_world/ (accessed 2 July 2012).
Jonathan Romney, ‘Eye Travel’, Sight and Sound, July, 1998, 33–5.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.