Warning: the following post contains spoilers.
Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira's Doomed Love (Amor de Perdição, 1978), an adaptation by the director of Camilo Castelo Branco's nineteenth century novel, has very recently emerged as the knowledgeable cinephile's choice for the greatest of Oliveira's films - a position, it should be added, that has found a convenient alibi in the film's virtual invisibility (it remains unreleased anywhere on VHS or DVD). Following a recent 16mm screening of the 265-minute picture at Washington's National Gallery, this piece's two authors can do nothing but agree with the above position, however unlikely it might seem that one of the director's least seen should rate as his very best. That this position is in no small measure a product of the narrative's real emotive strength only reinforces the unlikelihood of its obscurity (in the clandestine context of Oliveira's high art corpus, of course).
Unlike the impossibly arcane focus on Portuguese history and nationality that characterizes many of the director's better films, Doomed Love trades on the more universal Romeo and Juliet plot that Branco's novel triangulates with a second love interest for its male lead Simão (António Sequeira Lopes). The aforesaid devotes himself fully to Teresa (Cristina Hauser), who naturally is the daughter of his father's sworn enemy. Simão is himself worshiped by the beautiful daughter of a blacksmith, Mariana (Elsa Wallencamp), though his star-crossed love for Teresa, accepted if not tacitly endorsed by the second woman, prevents their coupling. Suffice it to say that neither of Oliveira's pairings will find satisfaction, though Mariana will press her lips against Simão's at the moment of his death and then will join him - diving alone through the canted frame - under the water's surface, following his burial at sea.
With Mariana pulling Simão below the water, to be followed by the latter's correspondences floating to the water's surface, where they are promptly snatched by a single hand, Oliveira crystallizes the central thematic preoccupations that animate Doomed Love: this is a film that uses text to reveal that which is hidden by surfaces, as instantiated by the narrator who reveals himself to be the novel's author, and possessor of the letters, in the film's closing voice over. This strategy, while purportedly exceedingly faithful to Branco's novel, nevertheless naturally breaks with cinema's own predilection for exterior manifestation. Here, the novel's interior voices are related in voice-over, both off-screen and on, which both match the images on camera, procuring a redundancy, or more interestingly perhaps, fail to synchronize. Among the finest examples of the latter is Simão's assassination of Teresa's cousin - and fiance - of which we are told of as the pair face one another. Following a fifteen-second gap, the on-screen narration reaches the aforesaid voiced-over revelation, thereby highlighting the novel form's summary quality.
In fact, Doomed Love is structured upon the formal differences between film and literature, appropriating the latter to underline the artificial quality of narration in cinema no less than in the art of prose. This arbitrary quality appears in Oliveira's framing choices, such as in Simão's brother's horse back departure through the woods - adopting a singularly obscuring angle - or in the picture's utilizations of zooms that traverse the interior spaces before abruptly stopping. Then again, Oliveira's organization of space as often emphasizes the inherently cinematic, as when an extended take framing Teresa behind a diamond-shaped iron screen continues to highlight the architectural device throughout the shot's duration, thus becoming not simply a novelistic detail but a figure generating a phenomenological experience in its own right.
This non-literary duration occurs throughout Doomed Love, as in an excessive passage depicting Simão lying face first on his bed or in an interval in which Teresa's father's servants light the candles of a chandelier and roll up a carpet in preparation for the girl's birthday dance. Here the mode of representation again trades on the experience of lived duration, though it does so with the inflection of opera, and of the servant chorus doing double duty as stagehands. Oliveira has adopted this tradition in a medium that no longer requires its practicality. Likewise, the blacksmith João himself seems to follow from theatrical antecedents, even speaking his lines directly into the camera as an actor in theatre or in the opera might speak directly to its audience. By contrast, Simão's younger sister pulls a chair into the camera's immediate foreground as she discloses her family's fate in direct address. In this moment, it is as though the camera is being addressed as a camera, as a device to record for an unspecified future.
Then again, it is the film's past-tense that shines through most clearly, from the opening titles that will only later be fulfilled in Simão's transport to India, to the picture's obsessive strategy of narration that seeks to tell a family history in the same language as the novel. This is a cinema of the past, and thus of fate, of "doomed love," rather than of the perpetual present-tense that the medium traditionally utilizes. To this end, Mariana's premonitions of Simão's future serves to make the future past, evisioned as it is in her off-camera imagings. These hallucinations, as well as the on-screen spectre of a dead, dictating Teresa provide the film with some of its less conventional modes of address. In the end, Doomed Love is a catalogue of modes of telling in its many cinematic and non-cinematic forms.
Further, this strategy of summary is further reinforced by Oliveira's uses of sound and dialogue that (seem to) literally transpose the source material, such as in a conversation between Simão's parents where the voice-over specifies that they argue. In so doing, the filmmaker eliminates the dialogue that would comprise this argumentation, choosing instead to adopt the novel's summary quality. They simply argue, silently.
This effort of transcription may also be found in the extreme low-key nocturnal passages that recur in Doomed Loved, though in these instances it is a matter of detail rather than elision, even if elision is the visual effect of pronounced darkness. Most spectacularly, the film's principle action set piece occurs in the pitch black of night, eschewing cinema's technically-demanded perversions of naturalism in conventional day-for-night strategies. In greatly reducing the visual field, Doomed Love, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Victor Erice's El Sur (1983) follows Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) in simulating its period's lower key lighting. In other words, it seems to be very much an art film of its particular moment.
Then again, as always, Manoel de Oliveira's modernism singularly partakes in a relation to the arts that generated cinema, from the novel to opera. Indeed, its stage-bound settings refer more to opera or theatre than art cinema's conventional documentations of place, such as in the plaster board sea-going and stage-coach vessels that reinforce its constructedness. Yet, while much of the director's corpus ultimately underscores cinema's deficient nature, as an augment of theatre, here Oliveira's anti-cinema adds to its medium, providing a means to supply the sub-surface while reframing cinema as precisely what it is: not life, but art - and art which is as gloriously and exhilaratingly arbitrary as its many antecedents.