A Talking Picture

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

If you listened to my wife, she’d have you believe that the Portuguese invented everything in the world – dried salt cod, lobotomies, time travel and fresh air to name just a few. But with A Talking Picture they sure as fuck didn’t invent good cinema.

Manoel de Oliveira is the oldest filmmaker working in the world today. Living off of nothing but bacalhau and Sumol, he’s managed to live to the ripe old age of 101. Impressive, yes, but how good are his mental faculties? Come on, anyone who’s lived more than a century must have a touch of dementia. The weight of all those years on your brain must surely turn it to jelly.

The beginning of the film feels like sitting next to a learned relative. A mother and a daughter go on a Mediterranean cruise and we get to hear the mother tell her child all about the culture and history of the places they visit. On and on she talks, spouting dialogue that Oliveira must have culled from encyclopaedias and tourist guides. The explanation for the dryness is that the woman is a history teacher, but it doesn’t exactly make for riveting cinema. Indeed, the only reason that it’s really watchable is because they go to some great places. Only a philistine wouldn’t enjoy seeing the Pyramids and the Acropolis.

But so relentless is the history lesson that it began to feel like a flashback to a trip to Portugal I took with my wife. One evening, while trying to do some reading by the fireside, we were accosted by her uncle who proceeded to give us a history lesson. He spoke to us like a god, sitting on a chair as we infants sat on the floor. Even though what he said was occasionally inaccurate it was clear that we should just shut the fuck up and listen to what he had to say. My wife rolled her eyes as she translated for me and the uncle was oblivious to the resentment we were feeling. This is what the beginning of the film feels like. Just shut up and listen and you’ll learn some important shit.

One of the incredibly unnatural things about the first half of the film is the way that people randomly pop up to talk to the mother and child. The mother will be standing there talking to her kid and then an orthodox priest or an actor or Jose Mourinho will just enter the frame and go ‘I hope I’m not interrupting…’ It’s kind of ridiculous. Every time they go somewhere new you’re wondering who will turn up to have a discourse about history with the mother. ‘Hi, I’m the vacationing corpse of Bertrand Russell. I just noticed that you’re alone with your daughter and thought that you might want to discuss the finer points of metaphysics as we stand in the shadow of the Great Sphinx…’

Dryness and boredom eventually gives way to hilarity. It turns out that the captain of the cruise ship is played by John Malkovich. Somehow he makes the least convincing ship captain I’ve ever seen. I think Cristiano Ronaldo or Kermit the Frog would fit the role better. But we then get to witness the delight of Malkovich talking unconvincing political bullshit with a bunch of female passengers. What makes the scene even more bizarre is that everyone at the table speaks a different language (English, French, Italian and Greek) and yet everyone understands what the other says! For a while me and my wife pondered whether any of them would make a reference to this bizarreness and then after about ten minutes of chitchat Malkovich finally confronted the issue. Turns out it’s some sort of anti-EU sentiment – ‘Oh, we used to understand each other fine, no matter our differences, but now Brussels wants to make us the same’. Okay, fair enough. But the point still remains. They can all understand each other? They can all comprehend Greek! Piss off.

But one of the most hilarious bits is when Malkovich first encounters the Portuguese woman and her child. Once again the mother is imparting some useful piece of information and again someone pops up out of nowhere to stick their oar in. Only this time it’s John Malkovich. He then proceeds to queasily flirt with the mother and tries to invite her to the Captain’s table. She politely declines but Malkovich continues to talk to her, not quite getting the hint that he should fuck off. He even tries to speak some Portuguese to the daughter, which had me crying bitter tears of laughter. I mean, all I can say in Portuguese is ‘Where is the bank?’ but not even I sound this retarded. Honestly, it sounds like he’s speaking Elvish or Na’vi or something. Coming from his mouth it sounds like an alien language. Try speaking like that at Seabra’s or Tucha, Malkovich. The Portuguese like it when a foreigner tries to speak their language but I think he’d even try their patience. He’d end up with a couple of copies of Visao rammed up his backside. You speak Portuguese even worse than the Brazilians.

Then to show what a dick Malkovich’s captain is, he disregards the woman’s declined invitation and calls her to his table at dinnertime. Apparently he has a gift for the woman’s daughter. For a horrible, queasy moment I thought he was going to produce a dress or a Quim Barreiros CD, but instead he produces a doll. Oh, how cute. And then he proceeds to hold the pair of them hostage at the table as he continues to talk to his female friends.

The scene continues for an interminable length of time and then Malkovich is suddenly called away from the table. For a moment I thought that the ship might have hit an iceberg (completely forgetting that it was a Mediterranean cruise!) or that Malkovich had found another lonely woman to sexually pester, but being a total douchebag, he asks the Greek woman to sing for the passengers. So this woman gets up and sings awkwardly at the Portuguese woman and then to the rest of the diners. It’s probably meant to highlight the beauty of her culture, a culture that is being eroded by the European Union and its desire to homogenise everything. But instead it just makes for an awkward, stilted scene.

When Malkovich comes back, he doesn’t tell everyone that the ship is sinking or that he had a great poo. No, with three minutes of running time left, he tells everyone that there is a timebomb on the ship. Yeah, you heard right. There’s a fucking timebomb on the ship! Holy fucking fuck!

It was at this point that I started laughing like an idiot. How could such a dull, static film suddenly become such a laugh riot? Terrorists? Timebombs? It’s like another film came along, clonked the old Portuguese auteur over the head and turned it into a dumb Hollywood blockbuster.

However, the revelation of the timebomb is nothing. You see, as everyone is being evacuated from the ship, the little girl decides to go back to her cabin and get her dolly. Quite why she does this, I don’t know. But she does and as a consequence mother and daughter miss the last lifeboat. They stand there on the deck and Malkovich shouts to them and tells them that they should jump. They dither and Malkovich then begins to disrobe – he’s going to swim to them. No, this can’t be happening, I think. It’s not going to happen. If it happens I’m going to wet myself with laughter. But then it does. Before Malkovich can get in the water, the mother and daughter blow up with the boat. Cue then a freeze frame of a shocked Malkovich looking like a puzzled chimp.

This freeze frame is obviously meant to communicate the profundity of the final scene. But what the fuck does it mean? Don’t go back for your dolly? Never travel by boat? Innocence will always be destroyed? Who knows? And I doubt that Oliveira does, too.

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  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this! I began watching this 'masterpiece' and after about 30 minutes (and that watched in two different periods), I began to look online for a film review that would tell me if I was crazy or if this was truly and desperately boring and hopeless. I might have done it on my own, but I'll say you saved me from the rest. And in hilarious style. Much more fun than watching the rest of this film. Now, I can laugh, instead of going to bed fuming about having watched a fictitiously wide-eyed child that asks 'What is _____?' endless times and never needs naps meaninglessly blow up on a ship. Or roll my eyes hard and deliriously over the mother saying over and over again that she speaks "a little French." Save me! Hurrah for you!