It is not hard to imagine how this scene might appear on screen: as the soundtrack records what is happening in reality (the two children being clubbed to death), the image of their clasped hands freezes, immobilized for eternity-while the sound renders temporary reality, the image renders the eternal Real. (Exactly such a procedure was used by Manuel de Oliveira in the last scene of his A Talking Picture)1.


Traditionally, to illustrate his thought Slavoy Zizek gives cinematographic examples. Let’s recallthat in the last scene of Oliveira’s film Talking picture heroines, mother and daughter, overstay on the ship which is about to explode. When they run out to the deck the crew is already in boats and they can’t help them. The explosion, which follows in a moment, isn’t shown, the viewer only sees a face of a captain of the ship (John Malkovich) illuminated by flashes of fire. Having stopped the movement of the image, a still picture grasps a grimace of horror on his face. However the sound continues splitting the visual and the audible, and this is precisely what interested Zizek.

This episode is remarkable not because the oeuvre of Manuel de Oliveira suddenly caught the famous modern philosopher’s attention, but because Zizek sets a perspective for the politico-philosophic analysis of cinema. Zizek stays away from the narrative layers of Oliveira’s film, which is a deconstruction of a myth of united Europe, and that’s why the film is a good example of denunciation of illusions about the western liberal civilization. Instead Zizek calls attention to the form of expression. In other words, Zizek sets a method for analysis of political a\effect of cinema by which we should be guided by if we want to understand properly what «film politics» means.

Film politics is situated beyond the scope of ideas and beyond the scope of praxis. Film politics could be defined as an economy of the image, if everything wasn’t quite the opposite. Film politics is criticism of the economy of the image. An amazing, incredible filmography of Manuel de Oliveira is a succession of piercing political/cinematic expressions, myth exposures and deconstruction practices which are not that evident upon the first viewing and (or) narrative reading.

The aim of the following articles is not to define the content of political expression of the Portuguese classic’s films, which look apolitical at first sight, not to classify Oliveira’s oeuvres in relation to a specific political party, not to oppose the politics of his films and their aesthetics, but through the examples offered by three films, to try to show that artistic devices, peculiarities of style and form itself, -- in other words, aesthetics – are their own politics.



1. The Fifth Empire as an “adaptation” of Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama


The idea appeared after The Carnation Revolution, on April 25, 1974. Before that it was impossible to imagine it. The film “No, or the vain Glory of Command” is opposite to “Louisiades”, which is heroic epic poetry about an epoch, when King Sebastian undertook an expedition to spread religious and political values, tried to establish the domination of Europe on the sea, to posit one Pope and to convert Muslims and Jews. From theoretical and political point of view Sebastian’s plan of establishing The Fifth Empire was perfect. But it was a project of a mad king. How can such a small nation as Portuguese nation has always been to realize something like that?2


In the film The Fifth Empire Oliveira continues and sort of finishes his treatment of a subject, which began back in 1990 in his work No, or the Vain Glory of Command and which was continued in Word and Utopia (2000), which is a paradoxical biography of Antonio Vieira, a Portuguese theologian of the XVII century. In his interviews Oliveira has often turned to this epoch in Portuguese history, which he once organized schematically as follows: XVI century – the defeat of Sebastian I in the battle of Alcácer-Quibir after which the body of the King had never been found. XVII century Antonio Vieira formulates the idea of The Fifth Empire, a global Portuguese empire, which power should spread not so much territorially as spiritually, converting all the infidel to Christianity; XIX and XX centuries – the activity of a philosopher Sampaio Bruno and a poet Fernando Pessoa, which is related to the continuance of the myth of The Fifth Empire.

However the format of a historical film immediately is challenged by the fact that The Fifth Empire is an adaptation of José Régio’s play King Sebastian. Oliveira doubles the structure of the plot: there’s a reference to real historical events, but there’s also the possibility of hiding behind Regio’s fictitious narrative. It needs stressing that to deviate from any explanation of the actuality of a film and its relation with the present, with the help of a «naïve» attitude, is Oliveira’s favorite device: «I was only following the text of the play, nothing more», is what he said about this film in one of TV interviews. But in another place he allowed himself a remarkable confession.


This historical and utopian obsession with the Fifth Empire seems to have become a reality again. One that has already been tried out by the U.N. and is now being carried out with deep conviction by the European Union. In the meantime, the world is today submitted to a sort of return to the Middle Ages, subjected to an implacable terrorism that victimizes the innocent and which disturbs the U.S.A. as much as Europe, in its attempt to destroy western civilization. This is a sort of return to an atavistic and incoherent struggle, which is also a return to the mythical Fifth Empire, to the one which was desired and hidden . . . . These are the reasons leading me to give this film the title: THE FIFTH EMPIRE – YESTERDAY AS TODAY3.


Taking such statements into account, some film critics continue their analysis by explaining Oliveira’s evident political message as follows:


It’s obvious that Oliveira does something more than just criticize Bush. His words imply that an object of his critique is the whole neoliberal order and its attempts to establish worldwide capitalism. Oliveira means that the expansion of Western values, including capitalism and even democracy with human rights, can be seen in terms of their similarity with the religious and political aspirations of the epoch of Empires4.


This seems to be right. At the level of their content, topics and mood, Oliviera’s films do, indeed, bear a relationship to the surrounding political context. However, as he confessed many times: «I think that, as Straub said, films are cleverer then their creators. My films speak better than me»5. Hence, interpreting The Fifth Empire warrants going further than finding parallels with the current context of world events.

Michele Foucault has convincingly shown how, at the cusp of XVI-XVII centuries a newconception of the state emerges, one which loses features of individual royal power and continues within the mysterious notion of «raison d’état. From that time on “the end of raison d’État is the state itself” and that’s why “nothing in this definition refers to anything other than the state itself»6. The Monarch’s words - «the state is me» - gradually lose their meaning and a new formula is constituted: «the state is governmentality». In this context the drama of King Sebastian is that of someone whose obsessiveness and sovereign will encountered the atmosphere which accompanied another understanding of state. However it would be wrong to say that the antagonism of the plot consists of a conflict between an absolute sovereign and new governmental practices. King’s subjects and court advise in every way to abandon his fantastic plans for massive conquests and persuade him to use his power for the good of the simple people. The king’s problem isn’t in the need to become an “executive”, but in realizing his own incapability, in understanding that he, the sovereign, is already not a sovereign to the full extent, as a violent and fateful decision becomes impossible in a forming new world order.


(T)he seventeenth-century ruler, the summit of creation, erupting into madness like a volcano and destroying himself and his entire court. … The antithesis between the power of the ruler and his capacity to rule led to a feature peculiar to the Trauerspiel which is, however, only apparently a generic feature and which can be illuminated only against the background of the theory of sovereignty. This is the indecisiveness of the tyrant. The prince, who is responsible for making the decision to proclaim the state of emergency, reveals, at the first opportunity, that he is almost incapable of making the decision7.


Oliveira has no need to use words and quote such texts to express this thought. A frame which is constructed in a right way is enough. The king’s impotency to command is stressed not only by his permanent presence on a throne, which doesn’t uplift but fetters, but also by those rare frames in which movement penetrates the generally static film. A good example is a scene in which the aunt is escorted to her room. The scene is filmed so artfully that a kind of a puppet theater unfolds in front of the viewer, in which figures move along strict trajectories; they are so small and insignificant that they serve only to delight the eye. Sabine Lancelin, the cameraman (who filmed Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre and Chantal Akerman’s The Captive), demonstrates a remarkable skill to turn figures in a frame into insignificant points inside «mini-frames», as, for example, in a scene filmed through a gridded window. The main character walks away from the window, he sits down onto the throne full-back to the camera, but he is situated inside a small square of the grill, helpless and unable to get out.

«This kingdom has no king», - shouts the monarch in a bout of insanity, as if he saw the truth at the moment of the eclipse of reason. One needs to plunge deeper into the abyss of madness to understand the seamy side of the rational and secular worldview, from which notions of «miracle» and «decision» have evaporated. Ricardo Trepa’s ingenious acting, the gaze, if not connected to true transcendence, then reminding about it – all this makes the film and the monarch’s figure one of the most astonishing parallels to Walter Benjamin’s research on Baroque Drama.

Benjamin has shown that «the baroque knows no eschatology»8, hence, we, the viewers, not only realize the fatality of the sufferings of Sebastian, a particular monarch, but we also witness the debunking of the New Empire’s illusions. Oliveira doesn’t make outright judgements, doesn’t unmask imperious ambitions of some force, and even allows himself to admit a sort of sympathy towards the project of The Fifth Empire (at least on a theoretical level). But he suggests that every attempt to take hold of the course of history with the help of decision or belief in miracle is catastrophic. Or, as Benjamin warned in 1928:


Even then the danger of allowing oneself to plunge from the heights of knowledge into the profoundest depths of the baroque state of mind, is not a negligible one. That characteristic feeling of dizziness which is induced by a spectacle of the spiritual contradictions of this epoch is a recurrent feature in the improvised attempts to capture its meaning9.



2. Benilde or the Virgin Mother, woman and revolution


-In your film “Cultural Lisbon” a female soldier symbolizes April 25th, she holds a musket and two carnations: one white and one red. Why did you represent the revolutionary movement as a woman?

- I feel it this way. Deleuze has established a difference between struggle and war. I hadn’t thought about this before. War, as one sees it, is always done by men. It doesn’t match with the deep feelings of women, of mothers, who are made for creating, nourishing and protecting life. Now I notice that revolution, when it’s about such changes without battles, takes on a female spirit10.


The film Benilde or the Virgin Mother was released in October 1975, one and a half years after «The Carnation Revolution», a political event which determined the life of postwar Portugal. In his interviews Oliveira had confessed many times that to him the date of April 25th 1974 had become crucial for understanding and perceiving life, and not only the life of his Motherland. «Yes, today I see The Carnation Revolution” as a local reflection of a universal movement»11. Despite the fact that the director often refers to contemporary and historical political subjects in his speeches, his seeming political indifference has been emphasized more than once by film critics. Likewise, Benilde, which was the first film made by Oliveira after «The Revolution», doesn’t move right away to formulate a statement rooted in political categories.

It’s surprising, but in the huge filmography of this classic figure, there aren’t many films which offer a strong dramatic female character (not in a duet with a man, but self-consistent). The titles of many his works suggest that we might meet one: Francisca (1981), Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (2009), The Strange Case of Angelica (2010). Chiara Mastroianni’s character in The Letter (1999) and Leonor Silveira’s character in Abraham’s Valley constitute an almost complete catalogue. But Benilde’s astonishing character can hardly be compared to these. It’s feminine and revolutionary, not in terms of radical actions but conceptually. That is to say, in Gilles Deleuze’s terms, from which Oliveira starts his reflections on revolution.

Starting from Machiavelli, political thought has corrected ancient classics, having clarified that the sphere of politics is not the space of ratio, but the sphere of affects. No one expressed it better than Thomas Hobbes, that the source of political judgement and the ability to act is fear. After this there were other emotions and analysis of them, but the main thing is that the essential condition was formulated: to understand the political one shouldn’t forget about the emotional. Benilde is one of the most affective of Oliveira’s films, one which from time to time plays with the affect of suspense and almost weaves itself into a state of horror («the first act» is particularly amazing - the scene by the fire and the seeming coziness of the space of the house unexpectedly produce a fantastically sulky atmosphere). The best words to describe the viewer’s emotions are the dismal, Freudian unheimlich, that is, not so much scary, more like disquieting, but stronger than that. But even this description doesn’t tell us precisely with what kind of affect the viewer deals, it doesn’t allow us to disclose its political affect.

Apparently, Oliveira refers to Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand plateaus and the chapter Treatise on nomadology when he mentions the difference between the war and the struggle. It’s precisely there the famous philosophical duo introduces the opposition between the State apparatus and the war machine, from which all the derived oppositions follow: the war and the struggle, the state as status and revolution as becoming, the settled and the nomadic. Goethe, Hegel and Kleist. It’s precisely Kleist who is unexpected and appropriate here:


Goethe and Hegel, State thinkers both, see Kleist as a monster, and Kleist has lost from the start. Why is it, then, that the most uncanny modernity lies with him? It is because the elements of his work are secrecy, speed, and affect.'' And in Kleist the secret is no longer a content held within a form of interiority; rather, it becomes a form, identified with the form of exteriority that is always external to itself. Similarly, feelings become uprooted from the interiority of a "subject," to be projected violently outward into a milieu of pure exteriority that lends them an incredible velocity, a catapulting force: love or hate, they are no longer feelings but affects. And these affects are so many instances of the becoming-woman…12.


Mystery and affect. The form of the external. Benilde-becoming.

What is astonishing about this affect, which appears while watching the film, is that it’s not psychological. The fear is not connected to particular characters, to being afraid for them, to empathizing with them. The affect is outside the characters, it’s something external, just like those decorations, those sinister walls of the house and sinister music which come in the moments with which the film begins. If it is Freudian unheimlich, then it has come outside.

The whole film and all of the acts of all the characters (apart from Benilde’s of course) are an attempt to overcome this affect. Ways to accept Benilde’s pregnancy are various. Religious condescension to possibility of immaculate conception (the priest), amorous blindness and readiness to forgive and take the «blame» upon himself (the cousin-fiance), the rational idea of finding out the father’s name and make a wedding (the aunt). Any of these domestic and caring initiatives is structurally similar to the role of the State in Deleuze’s terms:


It is a vital concern of every State not only to vanquish nomadism but to control migrations and, more generally, to establish a zone of rights over an entire "exterior", over all of the flows traversing the ecumenon. If it can help it, the State does not dissociate itself from a process of capture of flows of all kinds, populations, commodities or commerce, money or capital, etc. … It is not at all that the State knows nothing of speed; but it requires that movement, even the fastest, cease to be the absolute state of a moving body occupying a smooth space, to become the relative characteristic of a "moved body" going from one point to another in a striated space13.


It’s enough to replace the word «State» with the word «family» in this passage to understand the strategy of Benilde’s circle. The absolute of the possible unbelievable, which Benilde embodies, is a challenge to the apparatus of power no matter which name it has (the state, the family, the school). It wouldn’t be right to say that Benilde succeeds in escaping – her «nomadic potential»14 is beyond the terms of aim and result. But Benilde manages to bring a setback into the robust mechanism of work of the apparatus. As if she were Bartleby’s stepsister. Only her formula is not “I would prefer not to”, but a more elegant one, which profanes and reveals the rotten seamy side of every apparatus: «If I have a son, it would be God’s son».

Oliveira admitted that while revolution was going on he didn’t keep up with the events and needed some time to accept what happened. However, his artistic intuition and his films speak sharper and more precisely then he does in his interviews. Benilde is a film about the whirlpool of revolutionary «becoming-woman». It can’t be thought about in terms of aims, results and methods («Each revolution ends up badly», - said Deleuze in his Alphabet criticizing «new philosophers»), but only in terms of potential and experience. The experience of (watching) Benilde or the Virgin-Mother is a political experience par excellence.



3. I’m Going Home and deconstruction of structure


«Even fiction is based on reality. Reality is a great inspiration for fiction. This corresponds to the possibility of truth. We know structure. Foucault said: What is left is the structure. The substance is lost»15.

Randall Johnson is wrong when he says I’m Going Home (2001) is «the easiest and most available film for perception»16. If there’s any simplicity in this work, then it’s a simplicity which resides in the greatest pieces of art.

The synopsis of the film is rather eventful for Oliveira’s works. The main character, brilliantly played by Michel Piccoli, has to go through the following sequence of events: the death of almost the whole family (his wife, daughter and son-in-law), a performance of two roles on the scene in a diapason from classics to modernity (Shakespeare and Ionesco), a robbery in the night streets of Paris, and finally taking part in an adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses. However the film couldn’t be called dynamic or eventful; despite its one and a half hour duration, I’m Going Home is able to lull and plunge into boredom an average viewer. This is a film-mystery, and its mysteriousness is absolutely indefinable – it’s truly strange and it evokes emotional dissonance (not irritation, rather confusion), though the source of this reaction is hard to define.

They key to understanding this film can be the scenes in the café. Johnson observantly notices that on which the comic effect of these scenes is built. We witness a kind of a parody of political struggle. The main character sits down at the table beside the window and starts reading Liberation, which is a leftist newspaper. It’s common for a person like him. As soon as he goes away, a neatly dressed man sits down at the same table and opens the rightist Le Figaro. This scene is repeated thrice, the third time Piccoli’s character is still at his place when the «conservative» arrives, so the latter has to look for another place. As soon as his favorite place is vacant «the rightist» intends to go back to it, but, all of a sudden, another man quickly sits there and opens Le Monde, a centrist paper17.

Johnson suggests regarding this episode as an ironical scene from Paris life, but it seems important to pay attention to Oliveira’s method. It’s structuralistic at first sight. Oliveira builds up a comic effect not through individual characters but on «common places» of mass consciousness – «the leftists», «the rightists», «the centrists». Our hypothesis is that the only way to understand the mysteriousness of this seemingly simple film is to extrapolate the analysis of the structure onto the whole film.

Even though Oliveira adored the Straubs, he didn’t allow acting which was absolutely aloof. However, if we associate the scope of causes for emotions (the death of family members, the robbery, the success at the theatre etc.) to what is actually shown (Piccoli’s character aristocratically but almost indifferently expresses to the robber’s face his surprise that he’d have to walk home in socks) or what is left behind the frame (Oliveira doesn’t show us the character’s reaction to the death of his family), it is essential to admit that there’s no psychologism, only precisely predetermined functions of subjects inside the given schemes. Structures in action. Even in the scene in which the character is offered a role in a romantic-criminal TV series, his emotional refusal is not the breaking of a character’s «ego» but the logical reaction of a distinguished actor to the offer to “stain” his career with «low» genre.

In such a worldview a setback is almost impossible. If actions and deeds are determined by the external, neither a personal tragedy nor a dangerous situation can be a source of a change of behavior. Piccoli’s character is not an apathetic senseless old man, who is interested only in his work in theatre and cinema and who doesn’t change his work and life schedule despite any circumstances, but he is one of the functions of the structure. He moves according to a set trajectory.

Such interpretation is confirmed by Oliveira’s unbelievable work with offscreen space and with his dissociation of the visual and audio elements. The street scene with accidental admirers is filmed through a shop window which doesn’t allow us to hear the words, which quite likely are chiches about admiration and gratefulness. What we can see are not gestures, but schemes of gestures which are detached from everything individual (the voice). And there’s another episode, a dialogue in another café, in which the character’s words are accompanied by movements of legs under the table, which a viewer is impelled to observe. It’s not just a minimalism of a frame, but a work with details which aims to emphasize the mechanistic mode of everything that happens.

However, Oliveira isn’t a structuralist in the ordinary sense of the word, as it might seem on the basis of the words quoted at the beginning. He needs structure the same way as does Foucault, to whom he refers: to demonstrate, through its example, its inevitable insufficiency, its fundamental crack, a defect that can be revealed.


[T]here is a part of the individual that cannot successfully pass into the subject, an element of "pre-ideological" and "presubjective" materia prima that comes to haunt subjectivity once it is constituted as such. … The subject is experienced as a causa sui – in itself an inescapable illusion once the operation is completed. The psychoanalytic point of departure is the remainder produced by the operation. … [T]he subject is precisely the failure to become the subject18.


The only moment when Piccoli’s character is knocked out of the rhythm, when he shows his «incapability to become a subject», is related to an attempt to transfer from one language register to another. The final scenes of the film, in which he can’t pronounce properly Bull Mulligan’s speech, lead to a destruction of any illusion about his stable subjective identity, and all he can do is unexpectedly leave the shooting stage saying «I’m going home». The function inside the structure has failed, and this failure is elicited by «existential commotion» but by intrusion of the external itself, of what critics of structuralism name with metaphors of a «crack» or a «crevice» in the language itself. Not only Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, which plunges every reader into a space of subjective split, but also a change of languages (from French to English) push the situation towards possible a displacement, a breakout, and after going through this, while many there are many possibilities, it’s impossible to remain a function of the structure.

Therefore, a story of one famous French actor’s life, in an ingenious Manoel de Oliveira’s film, I’m going home, perhaps his best work from theannées zero turns out to be not only «easy and available for perception», but also a subtle game with structures, a skillful criticism and deconstruction of ones.


Oleg Goriainov


(Translation form Russian to English: Maria GoriaInova)



1 Zizek Slavoj, Less Than Nothing, Verso, London 2012, p. 30.

2Conversations avec Manoel de Oliveira par Antoine de Baecque et Jacque Parsi, Cahiers du Cinéma, Paris 1996, p. 170.


5Conversations avec Manoel de Oliveira, p. 68.

6 Michel Foucault, Security, territory, population, Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978, Palgrav MacMillan, London 2009, pp. 340, 339.

7 Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Verso, London 1998, pp. 70-71.

8Ibid, p. 66.

9Ibid, p. 56.

10Conversations avec Manoel de Oliveira, p. 34.

11 Ibid, p. 33.

12 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapoli 1987, p. 356.

13Ibid, pp. 385, 386.

14 Ibid, p. 386.

15Conversations avec Manoel de Oliveira, p. 44.

16 Randal Johnson, Manoel de Oliveira, Univesity of Illinois Press, Chicago 2007, p. 114.

17Ibid, p. 116.

18 Mladen Dolar “Beyond Interpellation”, Qui Parle, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 1993) pp. 77-78.