Manoel de Oliveira isn't just a filmmaker; he's a force of nature. The 90-something Portuguese master is still making a movie a year, most of which première in the prestigious main selection at the Cannes Film Festival.
De Oliveira got his start as an actor at the end of the silent-film era in the late 1920s, and has directed 35 films over 71 years.
His most recent film. "I'm Going Home," opens in the US this week. It stars France's Michel Piccoli as an aging actor approaching the end of his career with mingled nostalgia and regret.
It's hard to characterize de Oliveira's films in a sentence, because some are traditional, like "The Valley of Abraham" and "Voyage to the End of the World," and some are very experimental, like the three-part "Inquietude" and the 4-1/2-hour-long "Doomed Love."
What they share is a profound respect for visual beauty and real human emotion. "My films come from my voice, but I'm not telling stories about myself," de Oliveira said in a recent interview. He spoke through an interpreter, slipping between French and his native Portuguese, and looking a good 20 years younger than he is.
The secret of his long career seems to be the sheer pleasure he takes in cinema, which he sees as a unique art form that incorporates elements of all the other arts as well.
He loves every aspect of moviemaking, and has worked not only as director of his films but also as writer, producer, editor, and cinematographer of many projects.
"Cinema is always a fiction," he continued, "a representation. Even the horrible facts that were shot by television cameras on Sept. 11 are not reality itself, they're the ghost of reality. Cinema is always the ghost of something that took place."
De Oliveira is fascinated by the complex relationship between real-world authenticity and the larger-than-life images movies fabricate so easily. "Cinema is the phantom of the moment," he reiterates, "not life itself. And yet we feel we are living more [intensely] when we see a film. It's strange! This shows the importance of memory. Cinema is always memory, just as literature and history are memory. Without memory, we lose our identity."
De Oliveira loves watching films as well as making them, but he's not too fond of most present-day movies. "They're too artificial," he says, "like [much of] modern life. We no longer eat fish that come from the river or sea, they come from an aquarium. Vegetables don't have their roots in the earth; they grow in a fiberglass box. Man seems to have forgotten that he's a son of nature and that he can't live without it."
Talking about his favorite films, he mentions the work of Charlie Chaplin and John Ford, old masters who "really knew what's important in telling a story." This contrasts with most modern pictures.
"All their artificiality and special effects are very interesting and extraordinary, but they're not something I appreciate. I appreciate things that are simpler and have a more direct access to life."
Direct access to life is exactly what de Oliveira's movies give. He leaves for Costa Rica in a few weeks to begin his next one. He'll celebrate his 94th birthday during the shoot.