It didn't had to be this way but that's life. "O Convento" marks as my first Manoel de Oliveira film and it breaks my heart to say that it was a painful disappointment. I always reverenced the man for his longevity, his passion in making movies even while being 100-something years-old, to me that was a miracle and something that hardly ever happens. However, like any other great art, his movies are quite hard to find, it's not easily accessible unless you're going to film festivals, hunting them on stores or the net, never displayed on TV. Almost happened with me seeing a film of his in a public station TV network and that was "Viagem Ao Principio do Mundo", great movie and that was my first experience watching some of his work...but I didn't get the chance to see the final half hour. A commercial got in, then the network went off the air for the final duration of the movie and when they returned, it was regular programming and that's it. Never got the chance to see any of Mr. Oliveira films up until this one, the official first of his I've seen.
The central idea of "O Convento" ("The Convent") seems brilliant when you hear it. It carries a mystery that you desperately want to get solved. It focus on an intellectual couple (played by the talented John Malkovich and the eternal Catherine Deneuve) who travel to a Portuguese island trying to find evidences about Shakespeare real origins, whom according to the professor, played by Malkovich, the author of "Macbeth" was in fact Spanish. The material he needs to access is located inside a convent guarded by a mysterious guide, a couple of caretakers and a young scholar. Haunting and almost fascinating until the main gets sidetracked by the guide, who knows plenty of historical facts and starts tempting Deneuve character; and the scholar who distracts Malkovich with many references of Goethe's Faust. That's when the movie get awfully pretentious by using reference after reference that doesn't add to anything and next thing you know those distractions are a work from the devil. So, Shakespeare has a pact with the devil and he needs to hide his Spanish origins from the general public? The couple's research wasn't the main reason to go to that strange island? It doesn't make any sense and it feels empty after a promising beginning and some effective thrills in the middle.
What bothered me the most - besides the "story" - was the indecisiveness of Oliveira is sticking with one spoken or one written language through the whole film. I know, Mr. Oliveira is one of the most respected auteurs of the true cinema of the world, gathering actors and talents from all around, great, but having the characters shifting their words from Portuguese to English than French and German was a huge mess, specially if you watch some version that doesn't have any captions. I suffered with that from part to part, and despite being a Portuguese language native...I had plenty of trouble with getting the dialogues right. Fun (or sad) fact for those who don't know: Brazilian Portuguese is one thing; Portugal's Portuguese is another thing and honestly, the latter can only be understood with captions because it sounds too thick, too fast and except for the only female character, I couldn't get half of what they were saying. I missed important bits from the movie? I think so. But whatever the case, I'd understood the feeling of a scene, the rhythm of each moment if this was indeed the true cinema of the world formed to provide a relevant discussion about society, people, cultures and life. Hours were taken away from me and there was nothing so eloquent and well versed about anything.
If the story doesn't help, the cast seems lost and the then 80-something director wasn't inspired, at least there's the frightening musical score that is purely out of this world, a true horror score that comes to threat the characters relative peace in that creepy old place. That kept me going, even after all the dialogues didn't make any more sense...because something spooky or revealing would have to come in the end. With a conventional storytelling, "O Convento" would have been a memorable piece of art. Instead, we have a weak film that seems to impress a dozen of folks who think they got something from it. I long to see that other movie of Mr. Oliveira because there was something remarkable there, things that can hardly be found in movies these days. 4/10