*. I’ll confess that I wasn’t familiar with the work of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliviera before picking up this one. In fact, based only on the DVD case, I thought it was a horror film. It has a giant pair of hands hovering in the darkness over Michael Lonsdale’s face, which I thought signaled something scary going on.
*. It’s not a horror movie. And I really should have known of Oliviera seeing as he’d had a long, productive career. How long? This film, his last, was released when he was at the tender age of — are you ready for this? — 104. It’s based on a play dating back to 1923, which he might have remembered when it was first produced, as he was a young man at the time.
*. As a filmed play it at least wasn’t a difficult shoot for such an old man. Almost all of the action takes place in a single, small set, and is shot with long takes and a motionless camera, with most of the actors sitting down. So in that sense it’s not very demanding, either for Oliviera or the cast, who weren’t exactly kids and might have had trouble standing for long periods of time. In addition to Lonsdale there’s Claudia Cardinale and (in her penultimate film role) Jeanne Moreau. Ricardo Trêpa, Oliviera’s grandson and an actor in many of his films, is one of the younger faces.
*. The idea here is that an old couple (Lonsdale and Cardinale) live with their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira, another Oliviera favourite). Mama worries about her son João, who seems to have disappeared. Papa and Sofia know that João has turned to a life of crime, but don’t want to tell Cardinale because it would upset her. So they bury themselves in lives of routine drudgery without meaning or purpose. Then João shows up, steals some money, and Lonsdale takes the fall for him when the police come calling.
*. It’s interesting that the play continues on, with the father going to prison and taking to the life of crime, which helps explain the “shadow” of the title. I think this may refer to a kind of genetic predisposition or hereditary shame. But Oliviera left this part out, which has the effect of making Lonsdale a more Christ-like figure.
*. That’s it, and it’s not a lot. Nor is it a story that I think resonates much with a contemporary audience. The morality and family dynamic seem pre-modern, the house with its lamp a kind of cave dwelling. It’s also very talky in a stage manner, with characters often breaking into intensely personal and poetic speeches that lay their hearts bare. I doubt this was naturalistic even in the 1920s.
*. Having said all that, I did like the look of the movie. It has a weird unreality to it, as though the actors are performing in front of green screen, with little movement beyond what you’d expect from animatronic models. And even though the proceedings should be pretty dull I found myself fascinated by much of the talk. It’s weird how often the characters eavesdrop on each other, but at the same time nobody seems to be listening to anyone. And time has given it all a sepia-toned filter of the absurd.
*. So not a bad little movie, given that it isn’t at all what I was expecting. My one big complaint was with Sofia’s constant sniffling. This got really annoying and I don’t understand why it didn’t register when they were doing the sound mixing. It’s not just constant but excessively loud. I found myself screaming at her to blow her damn nose already. In domestic settings it’s always the little things that trigger us the most.