Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira pits the glories of world culture against the harsh unreason of world politics. A history teacher (played by Oliveira's actress-muse Leonor Silveira) takes her eight-year-old daughter (Filipa de Almeida) on a Mediterranean cruise, planning to join her husband in Bombay. At every port of call, from Lisbon to Marseille, Naples to Athens, Istanbul to Cairo, via Pompeii, the Acropolis and the pyramids, the mother and daughter gracefully discourse on history and civilization. Traveling with them to admire these monuments to Western and Eastern thought, we forget how fragile a thing culture is in a barbarous world. The atmosphere of enlightenment continues aboard ship, where the two are invited to dine at captain John Malkovich's table, along with a French businesswoman (Catherine Deneuve), a former Italian model (Stefania Sandrelli) and a Greek singer (Irene Papas.) Oliveira is known for the intellectual intricacy of his work, but in A Talking Picture he uses unusually linear storytelling to express an idea so strong, it's shocking. At the end of the film one senses the director felt very deeply about the issues he depicts, and urgently needed to communicate his feelings to the viewer. Yet the film is shot in the same idiosyncratic style of his previous work, making it an unapologetic (and very talky) feast for the mind.
Manoel de Oliveira was born in 1908, in Oporto, Portugal, and was schooled in Galicia, Spain, where he excelled in sports and auto racing. After training to be an actor, he directed his first film, a documentary short entitled Hard Labour on the River Douro, in 1931. Although his first feature film, Aniki-Bóbó, was made in 1942, he directed only documentaries and short films for the next 30 years. By the '70s, he finally emerged as one of Europe's most important and prolific directors of dramatic features -- and it appears now, as he reaches 96, that he may go on forever. His extensive filmography includes The Past and the Present (1972), Benilde, or The Virgin Mother (1975), Doomed Love (1978), Francisco (1981), The Satin Slipper (1985), The Cannibals (1988), No, or the Vain Glory of Command (1990), Abraham's Valley (1993), The Convent (1995), Party (1996), Journey to the Beginning of the World (1997), I Want to Go Home (2001), and A Talking Picture (2003).