BENILDE OR THE VIRGIN MOTHER (Manoel De Oliveira, 1975) ***1/2
This is yet another outstanding effort from Oliveira, which remains sadly inaccessible to most film buffs – despite the director’s considerable reputation among the Art-house crowd, to say nothing of his current unique standing as the oldest ever active hand in the business! Once again, the reception of the Italian TV channel during transmission wasn’t optimal – though not quite as detrimental as had been the case with PAST AND PRESENT (1972).
It’s a defiantly theatrical experiment akin to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s GERTRUD (1964) (complete with three-act structure) on a distinctly philosophical theme that, afforded a deliberately stylized mise-en-scene, proves a generally mesmerizing experience – if essentially heavy-going and, at 106 minutes, an emotionally draining one in the long run. Consequently, the acting is inherently stolid – bringing to mind the largely non-professional casts in the (similarly spiritual) work of Robert Bresson. As can be surmised from the title, the narrative concerns a teenager who suddenly finds herself inexplicably impregnated (for the record, the contemporaneous A VIRGIN NAMED MARY (1975) – a low-brow but nonetheless interesting Italian comedy – was somewhat similar); her relatives (including a cousin/fiancé) and closest associates (maid, doctor, parish priest) grill her for the truth about the identity of the possible father. The presence of the village idiot (never actually seen, but his creepy wailing is the very first thing we hear on the soundtrack…which, as it happens, also features a rather ominous score) around the house brings them to suspect him – while, to save appearances, the cousin confesses to having taken advantage of the girl while sleepwalking (a condition she suffers from).
However, the heroine claims that this ‘immaculate conception’ is an act of God (she admits to being drawn at night by a blinding light in the woods) – which causes her misanthrope father to doubt the girl’s sanity, especially since her own mother died a lunatic! The first act sees the maid alerting the doctor and priest as to Benilde’s mysterious pregnancy; in the second, the doctor tells the girl’s aunt to have a talk with her – which later also involves her son, the heroine’s intended; finally, the aunt approaches her brother (the girl’s father) where all the various suppositions come to a head (the boy is willing to marry her regardless)…except that Benilde has a fainting spell and eventually informs all that God is calling her to Him!
As I said, the film obviously has a deeply religious tone to it – yet it isn’t overly pious, but rather considers every possible angle and then lets the audience make up its own mind; however, therein perhaps lies its problem. For one thing, we come out of it not really knowing whether Benilde’s visions and subsequent benediction were real or not (i.e. if she was genuinely inspired or else merely deranged). Besides, while the whole ‘miracle’ premise evokes Dreyer’s own ORDET (1955) – not to mention Benilde’s misunderstood personality paralleling that of Joan Of Arc (the subject of a 1928 masterpiece by that same Danish film-maker) – its ending denotes a resignation to the mystery of spiritual life as opposed to an affirmation of religious faith. The child is not even allowed to be born, whereas the outside world remains blissfully unaware of the deed after all – an ‘oversight’ which can even be directed at THE EXORCIST (1973), to which I’d propose the film under review as the perfect anti-dote!
P.S. Having just been impressed by this and PAST AND PRESENT (not forgetting Oliveira’s disarming debut feature ANIKI BOBO'  – a paean to childhood innocence which had actually served as my introduction to his work a few years back), I hope some adventurous company takes it in stride to release the centenarian Portuguese film-maker’s hard-to-see yet vintage and decidedly important legacy on DVD: no time would have been more ideal than the present, but let’s hope this is a situation which is “Never Too Late To Mend”…
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