Espelho magico (Manoel de Oliveira, 2005)
OK, so I finally got this Brazilian DVD of Oliveira´s ESPELHO MAGICO (Magic Mirror). Check out the thread under International DVD News for instructions how to order it. It´s the only English subtitled DVD of this title I know of. Released by Paris Filmes, apparently a Brazilian distributor.
The video and audio quality is fine, Renato Berta´s fine camerawork is done justice, the letterboxing is approx. 1:66, compositions look good though my TV probably does slight overscan (in the main titles, the first letter of each name is only visible as a sort of phantom image, extreme left). English subtitles are well-written, with the literary quality I expected from Oliveira dialogue, plus occasional small errors in word choices (and such) that a native English speaker would not commit. The extras are a short Portuguese-language synopsis, a very short cast & crew list plus trailers for European movies I´ve never heard about. The audio gives a choice between Portuguese audio and "Portuguese in Portugal 2.0" audio (??). The disc opens with a short amount of non-optional commercials and movie trailers.
The movie itself, based on the novel THE SOUL OF THE RICH by Águstina Bessa-Luis (Oliveira has filmed several of her novels and she co-wrote IL CONVENTO), is very stimulating, extremely well-made in Oliveira´s usual stately minimalist style with deliberately non-naturalistic dialogue performance, and specks of deliberate, I think, deadpan humor and satire à la late Bunuel.
The main character is Mrs. Alfreda (Leonor Silveira), a devout, childless wife of a rich tradesman, who spends days in her mansion longing to speak to the Virgin Mary over tea (an obsession since childhood) and discussing the soul of the rich and Mary´s family´s degree of wealth with a priest, a monk and a Bible scholar, who tells her Mary and Jesus came from wealthy families.
She then gets a chauffeur, an ex-con who loves his dead mother and sister and was convicted for a crime he didn´t commit. He tries to alleviate her increasingly severe religious fixed ideas, but also, a bit mysteriously, goes along with a scheme to present Mrs. Alfreda with a Virgin Mary doppelganger found and trained by his old pal, a former counterfeiter who never gives a reason for this scam. Maybe he sees money in it.
The scam is never pulled off because Mrs. Alfreda´s fixed ideas drive her into depression and coma. Comatose, Mr. Alfreda, who usually spends his time and money training musically gifted local children, takes her on a tour of Venice and Biblical sites in Jerusalem. Over the door to the Venice hotel, there´s a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary, and, inside, a Renaissance mural of the Crucifixion and crypt-laying of Jesus Christ.
A cobra appears in one of the short shots of Gethsemane (probably shot in any Portuguese olive tree grove), all we see of the Jerusalem visit. The Venice and Gethsemane scenes are seen in the mirror in Mrs. Alfreda´s bedroom while she stares, unblinkingly, still comatose, into it, as she did in the film´s opening, where the mirror showed her as a schoolgirl being inspired by nun talk to dream of meeting the Holy Virgin.
At the end of the mirrored memories/reverie/dream, there´s a shot of light bouncing on water, earlier seen by Mrs. Alfreda while hearing a male voice softly calling her. Later, it is reported, Mrs. Alfreda regained consciousness; she understood the light imagery as the "light at the end of the tunnel" common to reported near-death experiences; the counterfeiter and Mary doppelganger fell in love; the chauffeur, bitter about women, elects for bachelorhood.
So, what´s this slow, deliberately paced film, shot in static one- and two-shots and medium long shots, about? I´m guessing it´s a satire on religiousness and on rich people´s fear of being soulless and/or therefore losing out on a place in Heaven. Mrs. Alfreda also reminds me a bit of madame Bovary, a well-off, dreamy woman whose discontents and imaginings sets her mind off-kilter. Though she´s no caricature, neither is anyone else in the film.
The light on the water is probably intentionally ambiguous. Either it´s the woman having an imagined epiphany, or, God exists, but epiphanies cannot be willed, they can only be experienced as and when they occur.
The cobra scene is probably a mischievous reference to a private nurse´s remark when they discuss the nature of comatose states. The nurse say´s it´s not like Mrs. Alfreda was poisoned by a "mamba negra". Or else Oliveira sticks a snake into Gethsemane just to throw us off-kilter. Probably both.
Marisa Paredes, Almodóvar regular, plays a Spanish nun who visits Mrs. Alfreda. I think she belongs to the chauffeur´s family, a Paredes-like figure is seen early on, praying at his family grave. What it means I´m not sure about, though, like a few other scenes, it smacks of Oliveira paring down his source novel to essentials.
The music is classical, the end credits lists Saint-Saens Carnival of Animals and Dance of Death (?), along with Wagner, Kreisler etc. Some of the music is really upbeat and, played over "temps morts" shots of garden walks etc. gives a feeling of merriment, like the music was Oliveira´s way of marking a gentle form of postmodern self-irony.
I´ve read a few online reviews of ESPELHO MAGICO. None of them go very deep into the film, so I thought I´d share these observations.
E-mail correspondence with Films du Paradoxe tells me that Manoel de Oliveira´s BELLE TOUJOURS will have a French DVD release in 2008.
There´s also BELLE TOUJOURS listed at the Spanish Fnac site (www.fnac.es
Apparently Anthology Film Archives ran Oliveira´s O QUINTO IMPERIO (along with ESPELHO MAGICO) a few years back. Could this result in a US DVD of O QUINTO IMPERIO?
As far as I know it´s only available on an Italian DVD, no Eng subs.