Hysteria in a picture theatre can be exhilarating if you're a part of it, and gut-churning if you're not.
There was hysteria in Melbourne's Como cinema – an especially plush rendezvous point for generally middle-aged, well-dressed art-film patrons and matrons – the night in early 1996 when I saw The Convent. But I wasn't among those derisively hooting. Nor was I part of the gang in the foyer afterwards who considered inscribing the poster with this piquant review: "Bad, bad, bad, bad".
Let me be perfectly frank. The Convent is a monumentally strange film; undoubtedly the strangest released in Melbourne since Raúl Ruiz's Dark at Noon (1992), which it echoes in certain respects. It is somewhat surreal, but way beyond the usual wacky or quirky comic surreality. In its almost funereal slowness, it resembles a solemn Carl Dreyer film (such as Ordet ) – and it has a similarly lofty metaphysical agenda.
The promotion bravely declares: 'A film by Manoel De Oliveira'. These words are meaningless in Australia, which has been noticeably retarded in catching up with this veritable godhead of Portuguese cinema. Oliveira made his first important film in 1929. Since the mid-'70s, his career has gone into arthouse overdrive in most sensible, cine-literate countries.
Yet here in Australia we have seen almost none of Oliveira's films. Only recently has SBS hopped on the Oliveira express, screening the remarkable Aniki-Bobo (1942) and his celebrated Madame Bovary adaptation Abraham Valley (1993). Now 88, he sits on his very own plateau of art and imagination, exploring not only personal themes but also a unique film language.
But it's little wonder that the Como audience found The Convent hard to take. It is like nothing else currently on show in our art-cinemas. Plot is merely a paper-thin pretext for other matters in an Oliveira film. This plot, which has Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich as a jaded couple wandering through a Portuguese convent looking for clues to Shakespeare's true origin, does not even attempt to be believable.
Like Dreyer, Oliveira is concerned with good and evil, spirit and matter. Like Ruiz, he is fond of tales of the supernatural, part religious fable, part cheap horror movie. Even though much of The Convent is cryptic, it generates an air of dread and mystery that is more palpably chilling than most outright horror films.
There's something odd and amazing going on in every virtually every moment of this film – if you can gear yourself into its mood and rhythm.
At one moment the spectacle lies in the atonal music, thundering on long after the actors have left the frame. At another we are entranced by a strange vision – perhaps a dream, perhaps a fantasy – of Malkovich kissing the pristinely innocent Piedade (Leonor Silveira), both of them seen only in shadows cast against the wall. And throughout, there's the outlandish postures and laughter of the Mephistophelian Baltar (Luis Miguel Cintra).
It is a peculiarly Aussie characteristic that audiences who suspect a film of being an arty wank become blind to its actual humour. There are deliberately funny, droll aspects to The Convent: jokes about the game of storytelling, even a faint, minimalist touch of bedroom farce. One of Oliveira's recent productions was called The Divine Comedy (1991); that title could apply here, too.
Seeing the commercial vacuum that such a film falls into in 1996 makes a cinephile like myself pine for the good old days, the days when the most extreme and demanding films of Tarkvosky or Herzog would get at least a nominal release in our arthouse cinemas. The Convent is a difficult film, but really no more difficult than the average Barrie Kosky theatre piece – and it is marked by the same layering of references to other texts (including Goethe's Faust), the same love of sensuous artifice.
I expect that The Convent is not among the best of Oliveira's films. But, even with its longueurs and arid patches, I found it utterly mesmerising and memorable. Certainly, it has filled me with the intense desire to devour the career of Oliveira.
The British magazine Sight and Sound has a good, positive name for unclassifiable films like this: Martian cinema. But when will distributors pluck up the nerve to throw a few more Martian films our way?
© Adrian Martin February 1996