Doomed Love

08/17/2015

Portugal / 1978 / Portuguese

Directed by Manoel de Oliveira

With António Sequeira Lopes, Cristina Hauser, Elsa Wallencamp

Still from 'Doomed Love'While the story of Manoel de Oliveira’s Doomed Love, a nearly five-hour adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1862 novel, could have been pulled off in a feature film (and has, many a time), it finds an extended depiction drawn out over the course of a television mini-series. Explaining its few theatrical engagements, it is a difficult proposal for a single sitting, a bit like reading the book in one go. Nonetheless it’s apparently a faithful rendering, scene for scene, of the book, and goes directly to the text. The characters’ lengthy soliloquies come from its pages, at times they address the audience as a narrator would a reader, and their beautifully-penned letters appear on the screen and are read off in full.

The story’s long-haired protagonist, Simão Botelho, doesn’t have swashbuckling adventures, but instead a series of dire run-ins with his family’s sworn enemies, the de Albuquerque clan who live next door, a member of which is his true love, Teresa. The star-crossed love, always from a distance, culminates in him shooting her cousin, Baltazar, to whom she was betrothed. But back up – there are a few episodes that came before this.

We see Simão coming up through the world as a firebrand student, espousing political thought from the likes of Robespierre and Marat, and being considered too radical by the university he attends. However he never fails to draw a crowd. Back at home he goes wild, smashing the pots of the washerwomen. Is he expressing frustrated desire for Teresa, the girl next door? They couldn’t be farther apart, as their respective families have horns locked in a feud. Simão’s brother Manoel absconds to Spain with his fiance. While it isn’t made apparent, it is likely that Simão wants to have the same roguish freedom as his brother, to flout society and family. But his predicament is a little more delicate, and he doesn’t dare steal his love away from her family.

Into the picture comes Baltazar, about whom Teresa couldn’t care less. It is clear to her wealthy cousin that this scruffy youth, Simão will remain a thorn in his side. Since Teresa rejects Baltazar outright, her father, Tadeu, decides to force her into a convent. On her first visit hears some hilariously backstabbing gossip from between the sisters and the mother superior. She and Simão correspond in secret, through letters ferried back and forth.

Meanwhile the young hero becomes friends with João da Cruz, a burly blacksmith who, having once been freed from prison by Domingos Botelho (Simão’s father), becomes Simão’s bodyguard. In the dark Simão is attacked by two hired assassins, but João and his friend are waiting for this to happen, and come to his rescue. Despite Simão’s resistance to punishing the assailants (since they were just doing their jobs), João kills one of them while the other gets away. João’s daughter Mariana nurses Simão back to health following the attack, and obviously has feelings for him. Devoted as she and João are, they cannot dissuade Simão from going after the root of his problem: Baltazar, whom he shoots in broad daylight, in front of Teresa and others. This insane act of devotion out of the way, Simão’s real problems have only just begun.

As if to further his display of enthusiasm to Teresa beyond all reason, Simão doesn’t flee the scene of his crime. Languishing in prison, he is sustained by visits from Mariana, who brings letters from Teresa, and food packed by his mother. Relatives petition Domingos to pull strings and get his son freed. One uncle even says he’ll commit suicide if Domingos remains aloof. So eventually Simão’s sentence gets commuted to hard labor. And since living prisoners are worth more than dead ones, he is bundled onto a ship for the ultimate form of damnation: the colonies. Meanwhile João is assassinated by someone avenging a murder he committed long ago. In spite of her failing health, Mariana makes her way onto the ship to accompany Simão on the way to India – her final sacrifice, since she is no longer at the service of her father.

Doomed Love has been a popular story to adapt, the theatre, film and television versions perhaps reinforcing the book’s staying power indefinitely. And it’s hard to imagine an adaptation more austere than Oliveira’s. The feeling of recitation is strong, not only in the lines, but in the graceful motions that accompany them. The actors seem locked in the sort of gravity that would normally be reserved for a village passion play. In costume, they stand in tableau arrangements, at times before a cloth backdrop or somewhat more elaborate sets. With the same thorough rigor of L’Argent (1983), Robert Bresson’s last and most Aristotilean effort, Doomed Love, things happen with a prescribed gravity.

Still from 'Doomed Love'Its characters aren’t adorned with any of the faculties that would make them seem human, and their motivations are attached directly to the motion of the plot, nakedly. Besides two real exceptions (the large, guffawing João, who feels quite natural, and Simão’s sprightly father, Domingos, who overacts in most scenes), the actors freeze in their expressions like figures out of oil paintings. This is like some intersection of Rossellini’s historical films in which he preferred non-actors, and Straub & Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), where the form is rigidly precise. Like that film, musical passages are thrust to the forefront, in Doomed Love‘s case, pieces by Handel played on harpsichord.

Oliveira subverts the pure costume drama of the film by extending normal scenes, at the beginning or the end of them, when no aristocrats are in the frame at all, and we just see the people working for them, the butlers and coach drivers, handmaids and laundresses. The exploits of the noblemen and women of the story are recounted in a voice-over, while we see the servants lighting the many candles and rolling up the carpet in preparation for their masters’ party. It’s graceful, like a dance in itself. This isn’t an obviously post-revolutionary view of peasants and workers, though, interested in the marginal as Oliveira is. In his treatment of class is the privilege of our view – we look on the lower classes as the rich do, with a certain amount of distance, while they are intimately a part of life.

The visual scheme is furnished with reliable metaphors; the opening image is of an imposing, latticed prison door, slightly ajar, and then slowly swinging shut; the grillwork casts a long shadow, sometimes literally, across subsequent chapters in the film, such as when Simão sits in his cell writing to Teresa. At one point we see her, at home in the nunnery, from a priest’s eye view, through one circle in the screen in the wall that divides the sisters from outsiders.

In the television version, the goings-on thus far are recapped at the beginning of each episode by Simão’s little sister, a minor character who spends her time sequestered in the house. These parts are unnecessary to the theatrical cut of the film (shot on 16mm and not widely circulated), and were thus left out. The girl’s straightforward narration of events, evidently spoken directly to the camera, add to the feeling of overt literalism. It isn’t just faithfulness to the text, but oftentimes the direct reproduction of the text, that give it the feeling of being trapped – not just within the society that Branco depicts, but within the pages of his story. Movements feel prescribed, overdetermined with the demonstrative theatricality of the writing itself, words made flesh.

There are, of course, several doomed loves criss-crossing one another in the web: the Romeo and Juliet love of Simão and Teresa; the slavish devotion of Mariana for Simão; and (one could argue) the paternal love that João feels for Simão, as well as his almost religious reverence for his pitiful daughter. They’re all doomed when you really get down to it – headed for heartbreak, to loss and final emptiness. In the lore of Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy of the two teenagers who can never be together overshadows other, probably greater, tragedies: the longtime feud between the two families, the deaths of Mercutio and Paris. Here Simão and Teresa’s mission to reunite leads the narrative, but it’s so central that you begin to forget that it’s there, and these other, interesting connections begin to emerge in its place.

“Doomed” is perhaps not even that apt a word for it. The title that Branco chose translates to something more like “Damned Love”. But hardly ever do you feel the insupportable burden of fate bearing down on the characters, no infernal machine set into motion a la Cocteau. Their actions are discrete, avoidable, exaggerated but proportional to their repression. You could see these actions coming a mile away, not because they are predestined, but because of the laborious intention with which they’re carried out, usually due to the characters’ personalities rather than chains of events. Things happen episodically, and Bresson’s sense of nebulous fatalism isn’t really apparent here, only the strength of the agencies enforcing cause and effect.

Still from 'Doomed Love'It’s interesting to look at how Portuguese filmmakers at that time – after the revolution of 1974 – were treating Bresson’s aesthetic as liberating, as though they were finally able to go back and reveal what was pure about their collective narratives. The folklore mixed with living-room theatre of João Cesar Monteiro’s Paths (1978) and Silvestre (1981), as well as António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s films, all bear a striking resemblance to what Oliveira was doing at that time. Part of it is that they had to be simple; Portugal didn’t – and continues not to – have a film industry, and there was very little money available for films alone. Like many cultural undertakings in the country, this bears the name of the Gulbenkian Foundation, a very deep and very important well of funding for the arts.

Why does Oliveira give this story, one of such importance to the national literature, such stiff treatment? There’s somewhat more to it than simply depicting what the television audience would want from a classic, and it certainly wasn’t the only path to interpreting the book. It seems to have something to do with how Branco saw the novel’s substance, reproducing a 19th-Century way of thinking about narrative. People who find Oliveira’s films, his late work more than any, to be too classicist, too repressed, almost from another century (he was born in 1908, so wasn’t far off), are quite justified, but may fail to notice that this is a very particular type of modernism that was going on. He retreated into an ancient mode further than his contemporaries did.

He was nearly the same age as Bresson, and also took a long time getting started with films (only making them sporadically for the first 40 years of his career), and Bresson’s influence shows in his work. Like Eric Rohmer, Oliveira was attached to ceremony, a Catholic to Bresson’s Protestant idealization of form and composition. Doomed Love feels ascetic but in a different way, in people’s single-mindedness, rather than with a spirit suffusing the proceedings. The approach is intriguing, if at times difficult to enjoy, and has a similar buttered light and stuffy beauty as Monteiro’s folktale period, or any of Reis and Cordeiro’s films. The people wear stockings, but there the similarities to Barry Lyndon end, as transparent and natural light doesn’t penetrate the curtains of the sets.

If he is trying to show us that things happen inexorably as the prison door’s semicircular path, it is only due to the plot points being overdetermined by the ossified society depicted. By and large, these aren’t people who make decisions and interpret social values, but instead act them out naively. Any spirit of defiance that the novel may have expressed seems to have been left behind as inessential to the central tragedy. Things happen so slowly, and with such affected simplicity, that one almost feels like getting up and walking among the characters, stopping them in mid-action and turning their bodies away from harm. As Simão levels the gun, it takes an eternity, not through slow-motion but through ceremony. Nothing seems to be happening in real-time, feeling more like a studied reenactment than drama.

This is among the most austere works of Oliveira’s stately late period. He was already in his 70s at this point, and again echoing Bresson, had entered into a sort of mystical dialectic with the cinema-space, wherein every movement across its surface becomes weighed down with allegorical anchoring, people are like paper cutouts propped up, and the very last, tenuous connections to real life seem to float away like chaff in water. Oliveira started well before realism became popular, and he outlived it. He used the 19th Century novel, dated but popular, as a magnifying glass through which to discover the threads of the national fabric, in line with those who became his contemporaries in the 1970s. Rendering the story so plainly, in such stark tableau, is a method in favor of clarity. The novel’s Mediterranean combination of nobility and swashbuckling, of vendettas and individualism – the protean Portuguese text – are flattened in a class-conscious way to a set of symbols. They’re still there, but as annotations to the true belly of the narrative. The film’s choreographed moves aren’t cinematic but resolutely literary, and so, fidelity to the passages aside, may be its most authentic adaptation.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: