Friday, May 21, 2010

Film Review: The Convent

"The Convent" *** (out of ****)

In my attempts to introduce readers to many of the great filmmakers in world cinema I have decided to once again review the work of the world-renown Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira.

The last time I reviewed a film by de Oliveira was his sequel to Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" (1967), "Belle Toujours" (2006). In that review I explained I was not very familiar with his work but was eager to watch more of his films. Between that review and this one I have come across more of his work.

Manoel de Oliveira was born in Portugal in 1908, at 101 he is the oldest living active filmmaker. He manages to direct one film a year, proving to the nay-sayers, with age does not come a loss of talent or creativity. In Europe he is a well respected auteur. To celebrate his 100th birthday in the U.K. a 22 DVD collection of his work was released. Unfortunately in America his work is hard to come by. Some of his more recent titles are available though such as "The Convent" (1996).

Of the limited amount of films I have seen by de Oliveira this one seems to take him out of his element the most, at least on the surface. My experience with de Oliveira's work has suggested he mostly deals with the musings of love. I feel comfortable comparing him to Eric Rohmer. Both of these directors rely heavily on dialogue. Their characters speak about philosophy and love. And I must say, his stories usually end on a tragic note.

In "The Convent" we follow a married couple; Michael (John Malkovich) and Helene (Catherine Deneuve). They travel to a Portuguese monastery for research regarding a thesis Michael is working on. It is his belief Shakespeare was not English but rather of Spanish Jewish origin.

This however is quite useless to the story. It is merely a device to get these characters into the monastery. Think in terms of a haunted house movie. The main object is the get all the characters together in the creepy setting. The objective in "The Convent" is the same. Once the couple are in the monastery and walk on the grounds there is little discussion about Shakespeare. The dialogue now centers on religion, the occult, God and Faust. In fact, if you called "The Convent" de Oliveira's adaptation of Faust you wouldn't be too far off base.

As soon as Michael and Helene arrive the viewer can tell something is aschew in the monastery. They are greeted by Baltar (Luis Miguel Cintra) who immediately makes sexual advances at Helene. Meanwhile to help Michael with his research is Piedade (de Oliveira's greatest muse Leonor Silveira). She was married before but is said to be "innocent" and "pure". The only other people seen at the monastery are Baltazar (Duarte de Almeida) and Berta (Heloisa Miranda) a fortune teller.

One thing I immediately noticed about the film is the great emphasis that de Olveira places on music. Nearly the entire film is accompanied by a score. But, the score is often too suggestive, too overwhelming. It suggest more than the scene provides us with visually. At times this can be a distraction. However, not always. After a while I began to feel as if the music was attempting to put us into a trance. Perhaps the music is not meant to compliment scenes but is suppose to reflect the character's state of mind.

The big twist here is whether or not Baltar is really the Devil. This is where the Faust aspect of the story comes in. If you are not familiar with the story, Faust was a scholar, like Michael, who sought unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Michael wants to make a great breakthrough. And as far as worldly pleasures are concern we notice an attraction between himself and Piedade. But the question soon becomes which character is Faust? Both Michael and Helene ask something of Baltar.

The film has some dark themes. In many ways this film could have played as a psychological thriller. It would seem to be the perfect choice for a film like this is not Manoel de Oliveira but Roman Polanski. Polanski would do more with the camera and lighting to create more of a disturbing atmosphere and use the monastery setting to greater effect. This is not de Oliveira's strong suit. He mostly has the characters speak to each other in the open. There is one good scene where he does play around with lighting and we see events happen as shadows on a wall. The film needed more of this.

Still I'd suggest watching "The Convent". It is fun to see de Oliveira play around with genres. A majority of viewers probably won't like the movie though. The work of Manoel de Oliveira has a way of dividing an audience. Many people feel his work is too slow and boring. I will say "The Convent" lacks a classic three act structure. I don't know if this film would serve as a good introduction into his work either. All of the films I have seen by him are so far out of the mainstream I honestly don't know where the best place to start would be. I enjoyed his "A Talking Picture" (2004), which was my introduction into his work, but American audiences strongly rejected it. His "Abraham's Valley" (1993) is epic. It is an adaptation of "Madame Bovary" but at three hours I have a hunch many will say it is too long. His "Belle Toujours" will confuse many as it leaves many questions unanswered and his "Eccentricities of A Blond Hair Girl" (2009) does the same.

All I can say is, if you are a bit more adventurous in your cinematic viewing and seek out different films outside the mainstream, I'd say give "The Convent" a chance. Also, it wouldn't be a bad idea to become more familiar with Manoel de Oliveira's work.

The movie was nominated at Cannes for the palme d'or.