Manoel de Oliveira was born in 1908, before penicillin, before the radio, and before the popularization of the feature film, in what was then the Kingdom Of Portugal. He died earlier today, age 106, an iconic figure, and one of the unlikeliest greats in film history. He started in the silent era, and shot and edited his final films digitally. He lived through four Portugals, both World Wars, and over a century of cultural, political, and technological change. He didn’t find international recognition until he was in his 70s, and remained prolific and productive up until the end, producing a film a year well into his mid-100s.
Born into a wealthy family of factory owners in Porto, Oliveira received a Jesuit education in Spain, and became interested in film in his teens, initially intending to become an actor. His first foray into filmmaking came in 1927, in a low-budget project about World War I that was never completed. Soon after, he began studying under the Italian silent director Rino Lupo. He made his directing debut in 1931 with Douro, Faina Fluvial, the first in a string of silent documentary shorts. (Sound came late to Portgual, and Oliveira would go on to appear in the first Portuguese-made talkie, 1933’s A Song Of Lisbon.)
His early films—influenced by the German city symphonies of the 1920s—were not well-received, and though he eventually went on to make a feature (1942’s Aniki Bóbó), Oliveira spent the next several decades working in the family business, spending his free time on unproduced scripts (one of which he would eventually film in 2010 as The Strange Case Of Angelica) and the occasional documentary. These were the days of the second Portuguese Republic and the Salazar Regime, a time when being an artist wasn’t easy. Though the films Oliveira quietly made during this period showed a filmmaker coming into his own, they went almost unseen and unknown abroad.
It wasn’t until the ’70s, when Oliveira retired from business, that he finally devoted himself full-time to filmmaking. His work began to attract wider attention, with his four-hour 1979 miniseries Doomed Love serving as his breakthrough. The film introduced festival-going audiences to what would become the director’s signature style: minimalist, artificial, and easygoing, pitched somewhere between the long-take modernism of the European art film and the classical tradition of 19th century literature and theater.
Over the course of the following decades, Oliveira would become a major figure in world cinema, popularly seen as the dean of Portuguese film—a wry, impish, and thoughtful artist equally drawn to timeless subjects and to the cultural legacy of Portugal. His work embraced painted backdrops (and, later, ersatz digital effects) and artificial staging, creating a half-real twilight world where reality and theater and past and present seemed to intersect. From Abraham’s Valley and Inquietude to later gems like Eccentricities Of A Blonde-Haired Girl and his Belle De Jour take-off Belle Toujours, he created a wide-ranging, deeply idiosyncratic body of work, often drawing on Portuguese literature and working with a regular company of Portuguese and French actors.
Despite his age, Oliveira’s death comes as something of a surprise. Aside from a hospital stay in 2012, the filmmaker remained healthy and staggeringly productive into his final years, and was planning his next feature at the time of his death. He was survived by his wife of 74 years, Maria Carvalhais, and a vast number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Here’s Oliveira, a mere 87 years old, in Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story: