Our Civilization and its Discontents

Talking Picture, directed by Portuguese Manoel de Oliveira, 2003

Written on a Sunday, February 26, 2006, at the end of a badly started (and badly continued) week.

“Anxiety, work pressure, events, thoughts and readings with no clear direction, solipsism, our flaws seen in the mirror of those we love. Last but not least, the uneasiness of moving about a city with a gloomy indistinct threat hanging over [Al Qaeda had just menaced the Vatican at the time of this writing.]“

“Woke up early and watched A talking picture on TV (Um Filme Falado, 2003,) written and directed by the 96-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira.”

“Joana and her mother Rosa Maria (Leonor Silveira), history professor at a university in Lisbon, embark on a cruise ship directed to Bombay to meet Rosa Maria’s husband, an airline pilot. Now and then a new woman joins the cruise, both famous and lonely: Catherine Deneuve (a French businesswoman), Stefania Sandrelli (an Italian ex-supermodel) and Irene Papas (a Greek singer and actress). The ship captain (US actor John Malkovich) gallantly invites the three divas to dine at his table. Later Joana and Rosa Maria are also invited so the whole cast of actors (and bunch of characters) is now together.”

A Talking Picture by  Manoel de Oliveira

“Surreal in this movie is the fact that every character speaks in his/her own language: Portuguese and English the captain plus mother and daughter; Greek, French and Italian the three divas, all of them though perfectly understanding each other. This weird language thing, while making the movie hard for the public, gives life to a fascinating cosmopolitan symposium, the various tongues contributing to the effect.”

“We better understand the title of the movie (A talking picture) since here actually deep and disillusioned dialogues on the Western civilization unfold (its origins, meaning and future) like in a dialectic multilingual story, while the cruise ship slowly crosses the Mediterranean surrounded by some of its most ancient (and fascinating) cities: Marseille, Athens, Naples, Constantinople (Istanbul) etc., not without a last-days-of-Pompeii touch.”

“Joana and her mother had often gone off the ship to visit many places. Stopping once at a mosque in Istanbul, if I well remember, Joana asks her mother whether Catholics and Muslims are still at war. “No – replies Rosa Maria – this happened in the Middle Ages” (a newspaper headline places the film action in July 2001 … a little before the Twin-towers attack)”. Here below you can see Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a Wikimedia Commons image.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Gnu Free Documentation License

“The same night of the multilingual conversation the captain informs the crew that two time bombs placed by terrorists are about to explode. Confusion ensues and the passengers are requested to evacuate the ship in all hurry. However Maria realizes that her daughter is still on board so she gets back on the ship and finally finding her the two women try to escape with a lifeboat, although all lifeboats are far and gone. The captain spots them on deck from the sea and yells for them to jump, but the two women disappear in the explosion – they being so beautiful, the image of life itself -, a blast we only see as bright light reflected on the aghast face of the captain, while the credits flow down …”

“A few hours before the bombs explode the Greek singer (Irene Papas) had chanted an inspired sad melody lamenting how the Greek civilization had been swept away …

as the flowers of the orange tree
swept away by the cold north wind …”

“…a clear metaphor of our own Western world that could be swept away. Well, swept away seems a stupidity to me, although signals are clear that the world balance is about to change.”

Foreseeing such change, what Bush (and Blair) after all meant to do but try to better position their chess pieces on the world chessboard, with the aim of delaying Western decline (but foolishly screwing it all up, the process having been probably accelerated instead)? In this sense this enchanting movie seems even more appropriate to me).”

“Beautiful, minimalistic, despite some rigidity which nonetheless is part of its charm. And, incredible to say, written and directed by a man in his mid-90s, who was born when Franklin D. Roosevelt was at the White House!” (W. Addiego)

Catherine Deneuve at Cannes in 2000, by Rita Molnár, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license

Italian version

PS
W. Addiego (San Francisco Chronicle) also adds in his review: “The film is stripped down in a way only mature artists can achieve … Though it may resemble an extremely austere travelogue, A Talking Picture is much more. Behind the deceptive air of artlessness, it offers a cutting portrait of civilization — our civilization — and its discontents.”

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