In 1931, a young Portuguese filmmaker named Manoel de Oliveira made his first completed film: a cinematic portrait of the River Douro, lifeblood of his hometown of Porto. De Oliveira was working in direct conversation with the briefly flourishing genre of city symphonies; it was Walter Ruttmann’s seminal Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (DE 1927) that inspired de Oliveira to create a poetic documentary about work and life happening on and around the Douro.
It is a very beautiful film, full of striking compositions, rhythmic editing, and visual accents created through selective repetition. Light and shadow, the movement of people, architecture, the tempo of the water, the shipyards, the markets, the town … De Oliveira’s “kino-eye” is highly attuned to interesting compositions and visual textures. Here’s an example, in this rapid-cut sequence:
While per city symphony convention, there is no real narrative, the film is tied together by its focus on the people working and living by the Douro. Although greatly admiring Ruttmann’s Berlin, de Oliveira felt it rather mechanistic and wanted to create a more human portrait. We see people living and working; one sequence shows the flirtation between a woman and man on the riverbank. But like Berlin, Douro uses the dawn-to-dusk structure (albeit much more loosely than Ruttmann did); the film is bookended by this shot of the blinking lamp of a lighthouse.
Douro, Faina Fluvial was apparently booed at its première screening in Lisboa on 19 September 1931, although it was praised by foreign artists and critics. It has since become recognized as a work of mastery (and de Oliveira as one of Portugal’s great filmmakers). Douro is a unique portrait of Porto in 1930, caught between tradition and modernity, the manual and the mechanical. One of the climactic sequences occurs when a man knocks his car into an ox and cart, panicking the ox; it cannot be a coincidence that the reason for the man’s distraction is the sight of an overhead airplane.
It seems unlikely that de Oliveira would have seen In Spring (UkrSSR 1930) when he was creating this film, but I couldn’t help but think of it, due to the way water is such a key element in both films. Senses of Cinema writes that de Oliveira was inspired by an image from another film: “the taut chain of an anchored boat resisting the strong currents of a river”, leading him to think of the intense nautical activity on the Douro.
The texture of materials and industry, people at the market, the sky and the river, transport and buildings, light and shadow, the movement of the water and the wind. De Oliveira has referred to Douro as “an experiment with cinematic specificity, the multiplicity of perspectives, and with the montage theories that were circulating at the time” (quoted in Senses of Cinema). De Oliveira uses a range of cinematic techniques in order to reframe and draw emphasis to different elements of Porto. For example, the way his camera focuses in (and out) of this crest:
Unexpected and interesting framings:
And the use of shadow to abstract a movement.
There were two shots that stood out particularly to me. This one, in which the camera pans while passing under a bridge (?), I found just stunning in its abstraction and ambiguity, although I don’t know if it has the same impact out of context.
The second is a still shot that is held for several seconds:
I don’t know if it has captured anyone else the same way, but it’s the most astounding moment of the film to me. The composition is fantastic, of course – the hard geometry of the bridge, the fuzzy mist over the hillside buildings – it’s such a well-selected view. But more than that, I find something about this shot deeply uncanny. Somehow it looks both futuristic and ancient, photographic and painted … surreal, even. Bizarrely, it reminds me a little of the aesthetics of a videogame my brother and I used to play as kids. If nothing else, it’s a striking visual example of the old and the new coexisting.
It must be mentioned that Manoel de Oliveira is not only still alive at the age of 106, but continues to be an active and productive filmmaker, a whopping 84 years after completing his début film. Incredible! He has made roughly a film year since Douro, except for a long gap between 1942 and 1956, after the critical and commercial failure of his first feature film Aniki Bóbó (PT 1942). De Oliveira’s output has actually increased with his age; as Wikipedia states, “the vast majority of his films [have] been made after his seventy-fifth birthday”, which must be a comfort to those who feel that they are yet to achieve their ambitions. At 103, he stated, “Whether we like it or not, it [death] will come one day, but generally people are not in a hurry, and I personally have never been in a hurry in my life; this is perhaps why I reached this age.” It seems that he might live forever – I certainly hope so.
Edit 03 April 2015: It has just been reported that Manoel de Oliveira died yesterday, at the age of 106. RIP Manoel; live again through the films you gave to the world.
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Douro, Faina Fluvial [Labour on the River Douro]. Dir. Manoel de Oliveira. Porto, Portugal: Sociedade Portuguesa de Actualidades Cinematográficas, 1931. Available as an extra feature on the Blu-Ray release of O Estranho Caso de Angélica | The Strange Case of Angelica (PT 2010).