A wayward son returns home, bringing doom with him. “I am he that causes suffering . . . and laughs,” João tells his struggling family upon returning after an eight-year absence. He is the specter of a ruined past and the promise of an empty future, a human void that engulfs those around him. Like most every new film from 105-year-old filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, Gebo and the Shadow is in close contact with death, and the 2012 film, made when he was a spry 103 and now receiving a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives, comes closest to the abyss. While The Strange Case of Angelica (10) was a flight of fancy, using proto-cinematic effects to bring its protagonist’s young beloved back to life, Gebo is an elemental thudding back to earth, body and soul entombed inside a dimly lit abode.
Gebo and the Shadow was adapted from a four-act play written in 1923 by Portuguese author Raul Brandão, who hails from Oliveira’s hometown of Porto. When a friend asked Oliveira why he hadn’t made a film about poverty to reflect our era of the Great Recession, Oliveira said: “Such a film would be extremely hard to direct, unless it would be a documentary where I could show different cases of poverty. Then I remembered Raul Brandão’s play, Gebo e a Sombra, which deals with poverty and honesty.” Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) is the crumbling patriarch of a disappearing family. He is an accountant, tallying numbers in his ledgers for meager pay. His wife, Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), lives in a delusion that her estranged criminal son João (Ricardo Trêpa) is a decent boy who will arrive home soon. João’s humiliated wife Sofia (Leonor Silveira) lives with her in-laws in a suspended state of waiting—for death or for his return.
This is not a tale of perpetually thwarted romantic love, as in Doomed Love (79) or The Satin Slipper (85), but about what is left over when poverty makes such emotions an impossible luxury, and how best to cope with the lack. The family’s house is a haunted one, both with the memory of João and the absence of money, the latter existing only as symbols in Gebo’s account books. Ghostliness is established in an early shot, before the family is introduced. An alley is depicted in shadow, followed by a close-up of disembodied hands reaching towards the camera out of darkness. We hear someone say: “It wasn’t me.” The voice disclaims guilt, but for what act, remains unknown, establishing a free-floating anxiety.
After this flash of the supernatural, Oliveira restricts the space to the interior of their dimly lit home, arranged as if on a proscenium stage, the actors arrayed behind a table, staring straight at the camera. It is ritualized theatre, the kind he has been perfecting since the late Seventies and early Eighties in Doomed Love and Francisca (81), in which actors read texts uninflected in front of a static camera, simultaneously stripping away and foregrounding the illusion of cinematic narrative. Entrances and exits have a transformative power in Gebo and the Shadow. Gebo's daily return home from work is a marker of time, one that sets a whole series of behaviors in motion. His slippers must be fetched, dinner must be prepared, and Doroteia will began her nightly pining for João.
Sofia is first seen from the back, staring out a window, the world outside reduced to a cobblestone street obscured in fog. These outward looks are rare, doled out at the opening and closing. The sunlight represents the world that has shunned them, so Oliveira mostly places his camera away from the window, toward the dinner table. The cramped, darkening set is an echoing tomb for Gebo’s family, filled out with visits from neighbors played by a mischievous Jeanne Moreau and Luís Miguel Cintra. Moreau’s character discusses how her “burial clothes are all laid out,” while Cintra’s reminisces about how he used to romance the ladies with his lyrical flute-playing. All is past or dying or dead. The actors themselves are relics of the Sixties, commiserating about their own obsolescence. Lonsdale shuffles around in hunched slow-motion, never finding the energy to lift his feet of the ground. Cardinale is an angry wraith shrouded in knit woolens, inventing a happier life in her head.
For Gebo, the meaning of life is found in duty. He feels bound to support and protect his wife’s delusions, and to offer his daughter-in-law the love and affection his son deprived her of. For Gebo, “good fortune is when nothing happens.” Repetition and habit are zones of safety, hence his inability to rise in the ranks of his accounting firm. Wealth circulates around him but never accumulates—he even brings home suitcases of cash that are destined for the company bank account, none for his own pocket. João is his inverse, a destabilizing, revolutionary force. Instead of escaping the tragedy of living through habit, he chooses violence and rebellion. He appears at the end of the first act, cackling at his befuddled father.
João reappears at night, emerging out of blackness. He accuses his family of being “buried alive,” passively accepting their lot in life. A tinhorn Raskolnikov, he lectures his family about the morality of murder. For him, duty is acquiescence, and honesty a lie. His rhetorical bomb-throwing destroys Gebo’s intricate daily routines, those ingrained habits that have allowed him to endure his life of poverty. Doroteia has to sink deeper into denial to repress the image of the scoundrel she sees with her own eyes. Sofia simply endures it all again, having long since accepted her suffering.
When João acts out his philosophy, in a crowning criminal act, Gebo is once again faced with a question of duty. Once safe in the dark, João has pushed him into the light. In the final shot, the front door has been busted open, the sun streaming onto Gebo’s face, inducting him into the corrupt world outside and sealing his tragic fate.