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

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.”

6 thoughts on “Our Civilization and its Discontents

  1. @Ashish
    Thank you, but since we now are friends I cannot trust your praises ah ah ah.
    It was written in one of those moments of pessimism. I got up so early that Sunday morning – I had probably nightmares – but was lucky enough to stumble upon this gem. Though it is a hard-to-follow movie being multilingual (with subtitles). Remember also that many young people’s comments on it were negative (both in Europe and America). They basically said something that depressed me and made me jump off my chair when I read them:

    “Hey, this is not entertainment, this is culture! Gosh! Why this Portuguese guy didn’t just write a book, instead?”. Now ALL must be entertaining (!) in the West, or it is ignored. I think Hollywood had a lot of bad influence on young generations. This is why Anglo-Saxons and the nations they produced lack depth in the end despite their virtues, money and commerce being the only thing they really care about … Where is great American Cinema gone?


  2. “Hey, this is not entertainment, this is culture! Gosh! Why this Portuguese guy just didn’t write a book, instead?”. Now ALL must be entertaining in the West, or it is ignored. I think Hollywood had a lot of bad influence on young generations.
    Haha yeah. This isn’t culture, this is poetry on celluloid. All people want is something to laugh at, or dance to. Nobody wants to discover something new. Like for Musicians who write songs with deep meanings are often derided because their songs don’t have the “beats” that hiphop does.

    Where is great American Cinema gone?
    Jurassic Park? 😛 lol. One of the more recent [nearly a decade old] films – Saving Private Ryan was superb. It not only depicted the war but the effects it had. Another recent one I had seen was a Paul Haggis film [a low budget]. Don’t remember the name, but it depicted the cultural tensions in LA. These movies are movies. Yeah sometimes some fun is okay, but more and more hollywood studios are pushing their films in this direction to make money. Money rules humans, not the other way round. The ruin of all. 😉


  3. @Man of Roma
    >>“Hey, this is not entertainment, this is culture! Gosh! Why this Portuguese guy just didn’t write a book, instead?”. Now ALL must be entertaining in the West, or it is ignored. I think Hollywood had a lot of bad influence on young generations.

    No may be the Potuguese guy expected the whole world to be blown up and not only a plane.. if hollywood has nothin’ else to think they return to their favourite theme ofdestruction of the whole world…

    And a plane is way below their expectation…

    On second thoughts may be the movie musn’t have been a great watch… but your narration style is so good that U can convince anyone and I mean anyone to go to hell so much that he actually looks forward for the trip…


  4. @Falcon
    You are shooting so many comments I find it hard to reply as I would … Thanks for your appreciation, anyway, and pls do not stop 😉


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