by Greg Muskewitz
True to its title, Manoel de Oliveira’s film is like a talking postcard, though a better title might have been A Talky Picture, or even A Talkative Picture.The nonagenarian filmmaker, official the world’s oldest working director, takes us along on a cruise with a history professor from Lisbon (Leonor Silveira) and her single digit-aged daughter (Filipa de Almeida), as they sightsee on their way to meet up with her husband, a pilot, in Bombay. We make port in France, Greece, Egypt, Istanbul, Italy, Aden, we see the Castle of the Egg, the Temple of Apollo, Vesuvius, Acropoulis, Egyptian pyramids, and much, much more. We also get the history of many of these sites and places, delivered through the dialogue of mother-to-daughter exposition or daughter-to-mother inquisition (“What’s a myth?”), and other insight from locals or travelers they encounter. Like history, it’s a bit dry, it’s a bit lecture-y, it’s a bit dull, but it is irrefragably educational and brimming with knowledge, which is in itself of high nutritional value. The discourse tend to go on, but the viewer cannot deny they are getting a workout, a real lesson, that proves very appropriate to where de Oliveira is going with it. Every place that is visited is examined for its history, its past, and shows the modern result of where these countries have ended up. The sites are ruins, relics of war and destruction; de Oliveira is addressing the post 9/11 world — not the U.S., not any individual country, but its aftereffects on the whole world — and the beginning of the results and repercussions from that date of infamy, as is the learned lesson that history repeats itself. For the most part, he treats it subtly and demurely during the journey, only a hint of what’s to come. In the meantime, at several dockings, the ship has picked up a trio of fictional cosmopolitan celebrities — all real-life international celebs, Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour), Irene Papas (Into the Night), Stefania Sandrelli (The Last Kiss) — who will later gather to speak at length, and in their own languages, with the ship’s captain (John Malkovich). The polyglot speech is of theology, philosophy, celebrity, language, the gamut of conversation. It, too, proves interesting, if not also slow-going like the film. A Talking Picture is very nicely filmed, unadorned in its photography of the historical sites; very little is actually done with the camera, but its steadiness does not detract from the silent passenger we participate as. Silveira’s and de Almeida’s performances are wonderfully natural and serenely an unobtrusive presence to the aforementioned destinations; they both perform as excellent tour guides. As to briefly reference the ending without spoiling it (and knowledge of a “surprise” ending in itself does nothing to unfairly give anything away), it is undoubtedly an out-of-the-blue incongruity that is a veritable shock with an exclamation mark. It’s riveting and sends chills through the body like few endings have ever done before. An excellent choice for Portugal’s Oscar submission.[Absolutely to be seen.]
"History 101: Beware or it will repeat itself."
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originally posted: 02/07/04 09:12:59