Vale Abraão (Abraham’s Valley) (Manoel de Oliveira, 1993)
I have mentioned in any number of reviews I’ve written over the past six or seven years—since I started doing so—that I am a collector or critical thousand-best-movies lists. (To date, I have found eleven.) I love data mining these lists. There is, of course, great interest to be found in looking at what movies make most of the lists (interestingly, not a single movie ever made is on all eleven lists; a few dozen made it to ten of the eleven, but there is not consensus on any film, including such stalwarts as Citizen Kane and Vertigo), but Roger Ebert once said—and forgive my horrible paraphrasing, I cannot currently track down the original source quote—that when it comes to lists of this stripe, he prefers single-critic lists to aggregates like the list as They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, because single-critic lists are more jagged. Aggregates (like the IMDB Top 250), by their nature, drop the movies that only appear on one critic’s list, since they’re compiling lists by a bunch of different folks. Presumably, that gives you a better look at what’s great, but I agree with Mr. Ebert as much as I can on this one. My personal favorite of the lists—and, not coincidentally, the one that reflects my own mindset the closest—is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s, which has all kinds of little oddities on it that other critics don’t even seem to know exist, like Jane Campion’s profoundly bleak 1983 short Passionless Moments. I’ve seen about half of Campion’s output, and Passionless Moments (which you can find as an extra on the Sweetie DVD; Sweetie is also on Rosenbaum’s list, and for good reason) is far and away the best thing of hers I’ve seen. Vale Abraão is another outlier; like many of the relatively obscure European movies on my master list, it is there solely because of Italian ultra-critic Piero Scaruffi, a guy who has forgotten more about media than most of us will ever know; he is the only person other than myself I am acquainted with who is just as much at home discoursing on the relative merits of obscure Japanese noise acts from the eighties as he is on the films of Robert Bresson. (And I rush to add that when I say “other than myself” I am not trying to imply that I know anywhere near as much about either of those topics as Scaruffi does—and I consider myself an expert on obscure Japanese noise acts from the eighties.) Scaruffi’s list is an incredible treasure trove of post-WW2 European art cinema that never made it across the pond; Scaruffi, for example, was touting Theo Angelopoulos years before anyone in America had ever heard of The Travelling Players. Needless to say, the second I saw this movie on the list—one of the very few Portuguese films in my entire master compilation—I knew I had to see it. Thus began a six-year trek to find a copy, until Netflix finally came up with one for me. (The only film I have been looking for without success longer than that is Memories of Underdevelopment, which finally saw a domestic DVD release five years or so ago and, not surprisingly, immediately sold out.) So perhaps it was that I was holding this movie, in my head,to a higher expectation than I should have been when I finally sat down to watch it. Or it could be a matter of bad timing; I think, had I seen this before I saw Raúl Ruiz’ masterpiece The Mysteries of Lisbon, I wouldn’t have had the same reaction I did (and to be fair to de Oliveira, I still don’t know, months later, why I spent so much time comparing the two; any similarity between them is surface at best). All of which is setting me up to say “you don’t really want to see this movie”, which is not what I mean to say at all. It is a good movie, for what it is, decently-acted if no great shakes in that department, gorgeously shot, well-plotted without diving too far into artiness. And yet it seemed to be lacking something. When you get into epic-length movies like this (it runs three hours and six minutes in the theatrical cut, another twenty in the director’s cut, which I have not had the chance to see) or The Mysteries of Lisbon or Satantango or Heimat or The Leopard or (etc.), in the best of them one finds an indefinable something that says “your butt is going to be in this seat far longer than it will be for any given Harvey Weinstein extravaganza, but I’m going to make you love every second of it.” The Leopard, with its almost identical running time, is a movie that breezes by as if it were one of Harvey’s ninety-minute wonders. Heimat is probably the longest, by duration, film that will ever make you want to sit down and watch the whole damn thing (thirteen and a half hours) in a single gulp. Vale Abraão, unfortunately, is lacking that ineffable quality—and this is the movie’s greatest failing.
This is the story of Ema (de Olveira regular Leonora Silveira), a legendary beauty who is, as is the way of these things, not allowed to marry for love; her father marries her off to one of his friends, Carlo Paiva (The Dancer Upstairs‘ Luìs Miguel Cintra). Carlo is a doctor, very well-respected in the area, and he treats Ema like a queen—so much so that she begins to suspect she may be made of porcelain rather than flesh. When he beings to sleep in another room (so as not to wake her when he gets back late at night from house calls), the true joylessness of her marriage sinks in, and she decides to take a lover. She settles on Pedro (The Sword and the Rose‘s Luìs Lima Barreto), but soon finds that life is not like a romance film, and she is just as unfulfilled as before; all she has done is add complexity.
There is nothing to complain about as far as any aspect of this film’s execution; it is beautifully-acted, the cinematography is pristine, the story is presented at a slow pace, but that makes sense given its atmosphere and subject matter. It is about as close to pitch-perfect in its execution as it could be. What is missing, as I intimated above, is something indefinable, that subconscious hook that grabs a viewer and says “this is a story you must sit through”. As a result, I assume this is a personal things, and that your mileage may, and probably will, vary. I’m not going to give it the gentleman’s C; it is too well-constructed a movie for that, and that alone is worth the price of admission if you value beauty in a film over substance. It is easily recommendable on any metric I can give you save that one that I do not have a name for; as long as you are used to movies of this length, this is one you are quite likely to find enjoyable—but I’m not sure it will end up on your list of all-time classics. ***
Unsubbed trailer. If you speak Portugese, the full film, also unsubbed, is available on Youtube (and it is the two-hundred-plus-minute cut I referenced in the first paragraph).