When the Word Is the Thing

When the Word Is the Thing

Veteran Portuguese filmmaker, Manoel de Oliveira, offers a tale to bust myths

“A Talking Picture” features several European stars—Catherine Deneuve, Stephania Sandrelli, Irene Papas and John Malkovich (who although American, now lives in Europe)—cruising through the Mediterranean on a luxury ocean liner. This intriguing drama filmed in multiple locations and in almost as many languages is no “ship of fools.”

Directed by 93-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, “A Talking Picture” is a very talky voyage of discovery about how cultures and history are assimilated. A young Portuguese history teacher, Rosa Maria (Leonor Silveira), is accompanying her small daughter (Filipa de Almeida) on a visit to see the girl’s father, a pilot, in Bombay. The reasons for the mother-daughter cruise—with stops in Marseilles, Naples, Athens, Istanbu and Cairo—become clear as the film progresses, but it is less important than what the girl learns along the way.

In the film’s unhurried first half, Rosa Maria teaches her inquisitive daughter about myths and legends. As they meet strangers in each port of call, mother and daughter learn more about the history of ancient people. Of particular interest is a tour of Mount Vesuvius, which explains how the eruption that destroyed Pompeii was thought of as a “divine punishment against a sinful life.”

These scenes are beautifully filmed on location, and each episode ends with the ocean liner picking up one of the worldly passengers—Deneuve, Sandrelli, Papas—who dine at the table of the captain (John Malkovich) table in the film’s absorbing second half.

“A Talking Picture” is a very deliberately designed and paced, and the filmmaker takes a leisurely approach to storytelling. The relaxed narrative structure may, however, be better suited to cruising than telling a story on film. After each port of call, the same sequence of the boat slicing through the water is repeated, and the story is mostly advanced in static shots that reveal little about the enigmatic characters, or their unspoken thoughts. The lack of “action” makes the surprise finale stranger—even, as some may argue, unearned. But even if the unexpected plot twist leaves a bitter aftertaste, “A Talking Picture” certainly offers pleasures before reaching its denouement.

The best sequence is the lengthy dinner conversation between Malkovich and the three European passengers—a French businesswoman (Deneuve), an Italian model (Sandrelli) and a Greek singer and actress (Papas). These characters converse in their native tongues, but thankfully, they can understand each other without translation. Although their discussion ranges from Malkovich’s silly flattery to more important themes exploring the English language “colonizing the world,” this scene provides an interesting counterpoint to the earlier episodes of Rosa Maria traveling to ancient sites with her daughter.

Unfortunately, “A Talking Picture” is likely to be discussed more for its jarring ending than its visits to foreign lands and the “polyglot interaction” it has presented up to that decisive moment.

The actors, regrettably, are as uneven as the material. Deneuve, Sandrelli and Papas are all lovely and graceful performers, and Papas has particular fun delivering a song in one scene. Malkovich, on the other hand, is badly miscast and frequently hammy. And if the lovely Leonor Silveira carries viewers through the film’s fine first act, Filipa de Almeida is a bit irritating, albeit intentionally, as her overly curious daughter.

“A Talking Picture” has its wonderful moments, and de Oliveira ventures intriguing ideas about the world in this beautifully crafted film. Alas, he does it with too heavy a hand.

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