DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
ABRAHAM'S VALLEY (VALE ABRAAO) (director/writer: Manoel de Oliveira; screenwriter: based on the novel "Vale Abraao" by Agustina Bessa-Luis; cinematographer: Mario Barroso; editor: Valérie Loiseleux; music: Richard Strauss; cast: Leonor Silveira (Ema), Luís Miguel Cintra (Carlo Paiva), Cecile Sanz de Alba (Young Ema), Ruy de Carvalho (Paulino Cardeano), Luís Lima Barreto (Pedro Luminares), Micheline Larpin (Simona), Mário Barroso (Narrator), Diogo Doria (Fernando Osorio), Laura Soveral (Augusta), Dina Treno (Branca), Isabel Ruth (Ritinha, mute housekeeper); Runtime: 187; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paul Branco; Vanguard; 1993-Portugal-in Portuguese with English subtitles)

 
"It's both elegant and subtle, a beautifully achieved pic that has a timeless poetical quality."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Portuguese octogenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira ("The Convent"/"Francisca"/"A Talking Picture") bases his 13th film on the novel "Vale Abraao" by Agustina Bessa-Luis. His film is a cleverly done and slow moving loose variation of Flaubert's 19th century Madame Bovary. The French classic is transferred to the Portugal of the 20th century. The upper-class beautiful heroine is saddled with a limp, which was not the case in the Flaubert novel. Filmed as a meditation on the life of Ema (Leonor Silveira, as an adult), the austere Bresson-like filmmaking technique sets a deliberately serious mood for serenity, melancholy and mystery (with time off for some playfully absurd mischief like car crashes). It's both elegant and subtle, a beautifully achieved pic that has a timeless poetical quality. There's a continuous detailed offscreen narration by Mário Barroso.

Ema (Cecile Sanz de Alba) is house-bound till 14. The likable girl, who walks with a slight limp, has the power to cause car crashes when gentlemen get distracted when they see her stand on her veranda in her white dress and miscalculate the sharp turn by her house to crash into the wall. Ema is raised in a bourgeois family in the Eden-like vine-terraced vineyards of Duoro valley. The girl attracts all the males in the valley because of her innocence and beauty. At 14, she meets while dining on eels in a restaurant, the respectable and genial much older married doctor Carlos de Paiva (Luis Miguel Cintra), who becomes smitten with her beauty but whom she finds unattractive. Several years later, upon the urging of her father, Paulino Cardeano (Ruy de Carvalho), she marries the wealthy widower doctor after a brief courtship and enters into a loveless marriage. Thereby she inhabits a bourgeois world of gossipers, drawing rooms and conventions, as she lives a life of leisure and boredom.

To escape her dull life and marriage, Ema gets involved in numerous adulterous affairs. But none of these affairs makes her happy. In time she becomes estranged from her insensible husband and two daughters. Because she can never find love or purpose in her life or someone to confide in when her mute servant (Isabel Ruth) confidant is unfairly dismissed, Ema's life is never fulfilling even though others adore her as the ideal woman (with the filmmaker using her as a patriarchal society's example of the objectification of women). When Ema needlessly returns to the estate of her absent first lover, searching for what's missing in her life, she dies when accidentally falling through the rotten boards on the pier. The meditation on her life confirms that she led an empty life despite such promise, a life that was only lived through the men who desired her. 

Oliveira presents a haunting portrayal of the life of privilege, very Buñuel-like in his disagreeable attitude to the bourgeois and their death-like existence except he's rather indifferent to that class and more concerned with his heroine's isolation. But unlike Flaubert, Oliveira dearly cares for his flawed heroine and endows her with an intelligence so that she knows that she somehow screwed-up. It's a wonderfully stylish film that is enigmatically both modern and 19th century in tone and conception. 

REVIEWED ON 11/9/2010       GRADE: B+  

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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