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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The latest film by the world's oldest world-class director Manoel De
Oliveira is heaven-sent for fans of the director. Addressing his
favorite themes: religion, the decadent Portuguese aristocracy, and
using his heavily theatrical and hermetic filming style with very
Baroque sets, he places once again his latest muse Leonor De Silveira,
and his grandson Ricardo Trêpa in the lead roles. They are the
protagonists of this story, based on the novel "A Alma dos Ricos" (The
Soul of the Rich), by Agustina Bessa-Luís.
One can't help but wonder if people like these characters still existed or have existed, and lived in this style anytime during the last 35 years in Portugal or indeed anywhere. De Oliveira's set-in-Portugal films of the 2000's all have similar upper bourgeoisie characters living in a style all but erased from the map in the past 35 years. Curiously, they are dressed in modern clothes, but live in palatial homes, or palaces themselves with the most austere, and over the top decoration seen in the interior settings of any modern films. The characters are also served by more servants than the Queen of England, another possible anachronism.
It is in this over the top, surreal setting in modern Portugal that the aristocratic Alfreda (Leonor Silveira) experiences a Biblical fixation and awaits a second annunciation of the Virgin Mary. She believes that the families of Mary and of Jesus also belonged to the aristocracy of their times.
It seems she's determined to reconcile her lofty position in the socio-economic domain with her religious beliefs; to compare her family's position to the Virgin Mary's supposed privileged family position, as she confuses her devotion to the Virgin with her own identification of the Virgin, or being a new appearance of the Holy Mother herself.
She is childless with her biological clock in its last years of ticking, and married to an older, idly rich husband. He seemingly couldn't father a child even with all the Viagra and fertility drugs he could buy. All this suggests Alfreda may even be waiting for an annunciation of an immaculate conception.
In her totally unbelievable wait for the Virgin, she does get a holy visit of sorts from a mysterious Spanish nun (Marisa Paredes). Meanwhile she also tries to find support in her husband (who looks like her father) played by another frequent De Oliveira collaborator. He, in some ways, also awaits redemption, though it seems he's actually more removed from reality than his younger wife.
Alfreda is fearfully sick, from a never mentioned sickness. She's also very attached to an English professor of theology (played by another De Oliveira regular, the French actor Michel Piccoli), who dies early on in the film. He and a local priest keep her busy with endless (and boring) discussions about the Virgin Mary.
But her definite buddy has yet to appear at this point. A couple of good-for-nothings, introduced in the first part of the film while imprisoned, are released from jail. One of them has an uncle close to Alfreda's family, and gets his nephew a job in Alfreda's estate. The nephew quickly gains Alfreda's confidence and affection, and becomes only too aware of the financial opportunities in exploiting Alfreda's obsession to see the Virgin.
This special servant/friend (played by Ricardo Trêpa) is hired as Alfreda's secretary or "gentlemen in waiting", as it seems his job description is simply following Alfreda around, keeping her busy with their idle chatting, and participating in an undeclared relationship, underscored by obvious and mutual sexual interest. Yes, the Virgin Mary wannabe parades around her not-bad body in a sexy bathing suit during her frequent swims in her pool and nearby bodies of water.
The nephew quickly gains Alfreda's confidence and affection. Pushed by the other jailbird, the real brain of the scheme, they proceed to exploit the aristocratic couple's fortune. They decide to stage the apparition of the Virgin Mary, hiring an actress and a dressmaker to recreate the Virgin.
I won't go on. But I will say that, unfortunately, the plot does not come off on screen as interestingly as what I have just described. After reading the above, I realized the plot was not remotely as interesting as it may sound. So, don't expect a lot of action, but rather a lot of futile dialog, serving De Oliveira to make a much simpler statement: the state of the Roman Catholic State in modern Portugal (in his vision) presenting extreme religious views from diametrically opposed segments of society (aristocrats and jailbirds).
To those familiar with the long duration of De Oliveira's films,the film is mercifully short (a mere 137 minutes), and is made more pleasant by the appearances of De Oliveira collaborators Leonor Silveira (Alfreda), Luís Miguel Cintra, Marisa Paredes, Ricardo Trepa (Alfreda's servant), Michel Piccoli (the English Theologian), Glória De Matos, Diogo Dória, and Brazilian Lima Duarte in his second appearance in a De Oliveira film, both times as a priest.
For those who can somehow appreciate DeOliveira's films in this late phase of his life, I recommend it and give it an 8. If you don't know De Oliveira's style, and dislike theatrical, dialog intensive films with severe claustrophobic sets, do yourself a favor, and skip this film completely.
This was part of a 2 film retrospective (for lack of a better term) at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC of recent works by Manoel de Oliveira (the other film was The Fifth Empire-Yesterday as Today). This is the better of the two films. This one has one of the more surreal plots of any de Oliveira film. It concerns itself with a rich woman (played by Leonor Silveira, a mainstay in Manoel's films) who has a strong desire to witness the Virgin Mary. 2 con men (one of whom has been just released from jail and the other is trying to go "clean", but doesn't seem to be trying too hard) devise a scheme to milk her out of some money and hire a local girl to portray the Virgin Mary for her. The plot here is actually quite funny, and this is one of de Oliveira's most surreal, touching, and beguiling films. The performances are all first rate, and the film has a wonderful, languid pacing to it (like most of Manoel's films). There is even a strange, dreamlike scene that takes "place" in Venice. It looks like a projection mistake when I first saw it, but then realised it was supposed to look like that, it made a sort of unique sense. I was rather disappointed at the crowds for these films (there was only 10 people in the audience for Magic Mirror, only 6 for The Fifth Empire), but I stayed for the duration of both films. I'm glad I'm did. Much of Manoel's work is not on DVD, but if you get a chance to see any of his work, please do. Even his minor films (like Party) are pretty good.
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