Nostalgia for the Real

by zunguzungu

The program for the Manoel de Oliveira series at the PFA speaks of that hundred year old director–still active, amazingly–as the “dean” of Portuguese cinema, yet hurries from that statement to another, more interesting one, asserting that “Portugal could never lay sole claim to him: like Louis Bunuel and Raul Ruiz, he is a major European film stylist. He belongs to cinema.” By the end of the paragraph, too, the writer has returned to this point, reasserting that “Again, he belongs to cinema.”

I’m fascinated whenever it feels like a writer or speaker is putting a somehow excessive emphasis on a seemingly banal point, when the lady protests too much. After all, who is the writer arguing against? Who is denying that he belongs to “cinema”? Why is that being the “dean of Portuguese cinema” has to be so quickly qualified and neutralized and why is it so necessary to establish that he’s still one of us? Why would being Portuguese be incompatible with belonging to cinema, and why does the writer compare him to people like Bunuel and Ruiz? Why don’t I stop with the rhetorical questions and just say what I think?

The answer, I think, is that Portugal’s position within Europe (and within modernity) is different than France’s, as the first film of the series–Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo / Voyage to the Beginning of the World–sets out to illustrate. Half of it is in French, mainly consisting of sparkling philosophical banter amongst a troupe of television people, and the other half is in Portuguese, as these television people try to communicate with a bunch of old farmers in a tiny Portuguese village. As we were walking out, I delighted myself with the thought that it’s a European version of Deliverance: nothing like Deliverance–because Deliverance is an extremely American film–but having in common a journey into a place defined as the “past,” and the problem of communicating with the strange savages who inhabit that past. That the American version features anal rape and manly men in boats while the European version highlights existential self-loathing in bad mustaches only firms up my confidence in the parallel, and my conviction that I have discovered the key to all cinematic mythologies.

So here’s what happens: three actors and their director are on his way to a location shooting in Portugal, and they make a stop at the place where one of the actor’s father was from. After much verbal mutual masturbation regarding the meaning of The Past, Art, Truth, Sex, and Time, the quartet end up in a tiny little Portuguese village trying to communicate with an old lady who is one actor’s aunt (and one of the joys of this movie, by the way, is Mastrioanni’s irritated body language once everything’s not all about him anymore). The old lady refuses to be convinced that he is in fact her nephew, repeating over and over again, “why can’t he speak our language?” Eventually, by visiting the family cemetery with her and via a particularly moving sequence where he makes her feel the blood in his arm, he manages to convince her that even though he doesn’t speak their language, blood is the important thing, and (when they have to move on to a TV shoot) she makes a final request: return with his brother, Yves, so she can see him before she dies.

Deliverance, too, is about the death of an “old” way of life: the river they paddle down is due to be destroyed by a TVA dam, so that hydro-electrification can bring progress. And, like the hicks in Deliverance, this old woman has a particular but barely explained antipathy to the outside: not only does she hate TV, she speaks with a poignant distaste for the ways that, by fleeing to the cities, the “old” ways are being left behind. So, as the film ends, we are left with an unanswered question: will the TV actor return with his brother Yves? Or will he prove all of his aunt’s prejudices against the “new” right?

The film’s final shot is the actors standing in a dressing room, resplendent in their period costumes–apparently they’re putting on the Portuguese version of How Green Was My Valley–and you just know, looking at them, that there’s no way any of them are going back. The silly nostalgia for “authenticity” that they are performing for television is from the same script that made it so hard for them to understand what the old woman was trying to tell them back in the village. As she talked about his father, she kept telling him variations on the same story: how he came to leave the village. Afonso is unsatisfied, wanting to know about his father’s life here, but she only shakes her head, refusing to tell he: there is no “here,” here anymore. TV has destroyed it, and the departure of young people. I don’t think he quite gets this, but–just like when she bitterly complains that the EEC has ruined the local economy by taking away smuggling as a business opportunity–it’s a remarkable piece of social theory: under globalization, being “local” isn’t about adhering to a static and authentic past, but an identity constructed by being left behind.

So it’s funny that, as in the film, Manoel de Oliveira gets defined not as merely Portuguese, but as a purveyor of Portugueseness for a global audience, an origin redefined by the function its interpellated into. Like the old woman in the village, his identity as local gets constructed not in opposition to the global, but through it. Like hers, it’s an identity constructed out of nostalgia for a real that not only never existed then, but only exists now because of the ways that nostalgia creates it. How green was my valley, indeed.