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With: Leonor Silveira, John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve, Irene Papas, Stefania Sandrelli, Filipa de Almeida
Written by: Manoel de Oliveira
Directed by: Manoel de Oliveira
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Language: Portuguese, French, English and Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 08/31/2003

A Talking Picture (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Speak and Ye Shall Find

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When the only living film director to have begun his career during the silent era has something to say, it's best to listen.

Portuguese-born Manoel de Oliveira, 96 at this writing, has been turning out nearly a film a year since the early 1980s. He is considered boring by some, and most of his films have never been commercially distributed in the United States. Yet when he clicks, he clicks well. His 2002 film I'm Going Home was my pick for the year's best picture, and now he's done it again with A Talking Picture.

True to its title, A Talking Picture is very chatty, and its visual schematics so primitive and subtle that they might pass by without notice. In a strange way, it's almost, but not quite, funny. It begins as a beautiful history professor, Rosa Maria (Leonor Silveira), and her 7 year-old daughter, Joanna (Filipa de Almeida), embark on a cruise around the Mediterranean, taking in all the historical sights (the Acropolis, the pyramids, etc.).

The professor explains both history and myths to her daughter, and the daughter dutifully asks questions for clarification. Along the way, they meet other people who contribute tidbits and factoids. After each stop, the pair boards the boat and watches all the people on shore waving goodbye. On board, the ship's captain (John Malkovich) gathers for dinner with three distinguished middle-aged women: a businesswoman (Catherine Deneuve), a singer/actress (Irene Papas) and a model (Stefania Sandrelli). Each speaks in a different language (English, French, Italian and Greek) but each understands enough of the other to be comfortable with this situation. They discuss language, history, love and other matters of great sophistication and intelligence.

By this point, the film has lulled us into a sense of comfort. This, truly, is a spectacular planet, full of fascinating history and intelligent people. We have come so far in our time here. And then Oliveira hits us with the film's shocking closer, an act so devastating and frustrating that no more words can possibly mean anything. The great filmmaker leaves us with a frozen image and silence.

It's heartbreaking to consider that Oliveira has walked the earth for nearly a century and -- at the end -- despises what he sees. So much has changed during his 100 years, but ultimately, nothing has. Only someone in his golden years could have made something as profound and as devastating as A Talking Picture, and only Oliveira could have made it as good as this.

DVD Details: Kino Video has probably had a hugely difficult time marketing A Talking Picture, and so I can understand if their new DVD release is somewhat skimpy. The picture is clean with good, legible (optional) English subtitles. The extras includes a list of Manoel de Oliveira's credits, which will go a long way in helping to explain his greatness, a photo gallery and a particularly awful trailer which probably didn't help the film's lackluster box office. And at startup, there is a trailer for Untold Scandal. The DVD box says something about an essay by Richard Pena (the program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Associate Professor of FIlm Studies at Columbia University) but I'm not sure if it was supposed to be a printed insert or coded on the disc somewhere. Either way I could not find it. Pena provided a commentary track for the 2003 DVD release of I'm Going Home and it's too bad he couldn't have done it again here. Nevertheless, I hope people don't let any of this get in the way of their enjoyment of a great film.

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