A Talking Picture

on December 10, 2004 by Tim Cogshell
A young Portuguese mother (Leonor Silveira) travels with her daughter (Filipa de Almeida) on a cruise ship to various historical sites across the Mediterranean. As they visit a number of beautiful locales, the curious little girl poses bright, insightful questions that the mother, a history professor from Lisbon, attempts to answer with equally insightful answers. Sometimes they are helped by strangers along the way -- a priest in Greece, a famous actor in Cairo -- each telling lovely stories about a city, a ruin, an ancient monument.

Director/writer Manoel de Oliveria ("I'm Going Home") has made a precise film, with a very deliberate set of intentions -- none of them remotely disguised, which is deliberate as well. With its exacting histories, stories, philosophies and myths, recited to and amongst its purposefully international cast of characters delivering sometimes flowery speeches without the slightest sense of irony, "A Talking Picture" can appear stilted, overwrought and even leaden. Its performances, which really amount to little more than a number of soliloquies, might even be called badly done--they are at least oddly constructed. Yet the film is somehow transfixing. The mother and daughter move from place to place, each with its own little claim on the formation of the history of humanity, and we are drawn into the stories and their interpretations. Questions are posed and answered: What is the legend, truth, history and theology of a given place, thing or moment in time? What does it all mean? Does it matter? Even the director's mixing of languages (Portuguese, French, Greek and English) is does not go unreflected upon: Why do we speak the languages we speak? Must it separate us?

Near the end of the film, the director insinuates a narrative flourish involving the threat of terrorism on the cruise ship and an extremely shocking conclusion that strikes one as somewhat out of the blue -- but, once again, what seems simplistic and melodramatic may be more deliberate than it at first appears. Like Godard's recent meditations, "In Praise of Love" and "Notre Musique," de Oliveria's "A Talking Picture" is a veteran filmmaker's moment of reflection and didacticism, and one supposes he's earned it. Starring Leonor Silveira, Filipa de Almeida, John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli, Irene Papas, Luis Miguel Cintra, Michel Lubrano di Sbaraglione, Francois Da Silva and Nikos Hatzopoulos. Directed and written by Manoel de Oliveira. Produced by Paulo Branco. A Kino release. Drama. Portuguese-, French-, Greek- and English-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 96 min.

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