Val Abraham – A Beautiful Life

8 October, 2021

As profound as the depths of the cosmos and as silky as a veil, Val Abraham asks for one’s patience to be able to release, in carefully measured doses, the entire grace of a hidden piece of the world onto them, caught at that precise moment of the day when the light is sweet and transitory, as if caught in never-ending autumn. Manoel de Oliveira offers here, in 1993, a late masterpiece – a magnificent, grandiose film, of the kind that reimagines the universe itself at the scale of the narrations which they set into motion, and which hope that, at the end of this entire effort, they are capable of expressing something decisive about mankind. A vast project, increasingly belonging to an era that is moving away from ours, when stories used to be broader, and cinemas as well, and the intellectual gamut which they developed in passing – after all, Val Abraham lasts for more than three hours – was not yet contaminated by arrogance and showmanship, still bearing the noble signs of generosity. Val Abraham, although complex in regards to what it has to tell, although piercing in regards to what it has to show, allows us to inhabit it, to embrace its delicate stream of images, offering itself as a temporary refuge from the onslaught of vulgarity. To watch it in peace is to understand Godard’s saying that cinema was, for him and those alike, another country. The country of this film, both phantasmatic and as concrete as it can be – just look at the rising vineyards along the copper-tinted Valley of the Douro River -, it’s superb.

There, in a land of an almost fictional beauty, Ema Cardeano Paiva (Lenor Silveira) lives her usually-empty days. It’s not an accomplished life: married to doctor Paiva (Luis Miguel Cintra), Ema, almost forced by her circumstances – as the doctor is almost always away, and even when he stays back home, things are not much different – starts to gaze into the distance. She married an older man, endowed with what one might call “social standing”, and only when she faced the loneliness of her new, bourgeois home, did she realize that life is elsewhere. Thus, she works up the courage to adventure in the director of other man and other landscapes, allowing herself the possibility of spacing, pigmenting her life with a drop of entertainment: a very beautiful show shows her along with the younger Fernando Osorio, happily roaming his à la campagne domains, onboard a speedboat. From the expression “human nature”, de Oliviera prefers not to privilege one of the given terms to the detriment of the other but rather transposes the mortal flesh amid infinite realms, which will remain behind even after our characters will have lost themselves in other lives. De Oliviera is not the director of rigid certainties: for him, man has something slippery, something foggy about him, something that is ever-changing depending on how the light hits. It is so that happiness does not last, just as depression doesn’t, but blends into the features of these tired faces, which are trying to find a place for themselves in this world. Between the bourgeois label and the unspeakable pains, the film ends on two phrases that roundly synthesize its ultimate meaning: “None of this matters. But no one imitates better than me a beautiful life.”

Val Abraham
Val Abraham

Val Abraham is, just as its protagonist, a film of haunting beauty. At its end, the entire world seems to unfold in accordance with the coordinates of this state of grace, like the fluttering of a wing, which de Oliveira sets up effortlessly. A film about aristocrats, Val Abraham keeps itself at a polite, falsely reverential distance from any sort of grievance, content to discreetly grin at the cycles of these almost autarchic lives increasingly eaten away by aging, consummated in the space between two balls and two pedantic discussions, now summoned to liberate themselves of all of their inherent melancholy. Here, we can see how de Oliveira manages to pass the test which Cristi Puiu, whose Malmkrog is passing these days through the few still-open cinemas of Romania, fails: the test of the abysmal tableside conversation, in which the heavy legacy of the old continent is a subject that is as natural as any other nonsense meant for people who wear tailcoats. And that is because de Oliveira is gifted and has levity – two great things that tend to disappear in Puiu’s case. A reason for which any stringy idea is oiled, in Val Abraham, by an unexpected countershot, an unexpected gesture – a rigid character taking revenge on a pet cat -, of an unexpected irony, sneaked in through the magisterial voice-over which guides the film from one end to another. In the end, there is a short scene in which the camera slowly advances through an orchard of orange trees, and then, in the following shot, we see Ema limping and staring astounded, with an almost childish freshness in her eyes, at the spectacle of these fruits that are hanging from the branches. It’s one of the shortest and most striking images of grace that I know of.

Dense to the same degree that it is vaporous, Val Abraham has everything to lose when one tries to tell its story. The better part of the plot is carried by the voice of an inspired storyteller, while the majestic landscapes of Portugal are in procession across the screen, captured by a warm-toned film stock, as in the works of Straub-Huillet. Here, it’s not the events themselves that we will truly preserve by the end – but, rather, a certain quality of the light, a certain attitude towards life, a certain ineffable je ne sais quoi, which resembles wisdom and has something to do with transcendence; in short, a distinct sensibility, which is ready at all times to work with the small moments that are impossible to reenact. Constructing on the framework of Madame Bovary, de Oliveira gave an atemporal film – this biographic trajectory spans many years across the previous century’s latter half, but nothing, or almost nothing, anchors it in its time -, in one can swear only by the evanescent states of the heart. A film as ethereal as can be, although its heroine measures her maturity depending on the men that have crossed her doorstep, and her memories do not guide her towards childhood, but rather, towards virginity. A film in which the innocence of the gaze never betrays itself. A sum-total film.

Val Abraham / Vale Abraão can be watched on the Portuguese Film Archive Youtube channel.



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Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris. At Films in Frame Victor presents Kinostalgia - a monthly column about repertoire cinema.