The late Manoel de Oliveira was the perfect filmmaker to adapt Augustina Bessa-Luis’s novel Fanny Owen, because he could probably remember the 19th Century scandal it was based on. Oliveira started his career acting in Portuguese silent films, but he had some of his most productive years as a director after his centennial. Back in 1981, his international stock shot up dramatically with the international release of his austere historical masterwork, Francisca, which releases virtually today in its freshly restored one-hundred-sixty-six-minute glory.
It will be a battle of the moustaches for the heart of Francisca “Franny” Owen, the daughter of an elite English officer now residing in Portugal. Self-consciously Byronesque Jose Augusto Pinto de Magalhaes has the inside track in his rivalry with his ostensive friend Camilo Castelo Branco, the revered author of Mysteries of Lisbon. Unfortunately, Jose Augusto’s severe intimacy issues and innate misanthropy inevitably leads to a deeply dysfunctional, codependent relationship. Yet, despite Branco’s somewhat self-interested warnings, Owen willingly embraces Jose Augusto’s chaos, more or less realizing it will all end in tears—which it does.
With Francisca, Oliveira is clearly working towards the deliberately mannered, post-modernist style that would reach its full flowering in his epic adaptation of Claude Claudel’s Satin Slipper. He still stages the drama with traditional period trappings, but strips down the sets and locations (which probably makes them more historically acutely than the typically lush costume romance). There is also an artificial theatricality that is maybe not as extreme as that seen in Slipper, but a lot of viewers will still need time to acclimate themselves to it, especially the way dialogue is often repeated for effect.
Indeed, it is easy to admire the auteurist vision of Francisca, but it is not exactly a film you would want to curl up with on a cold winter’s night. Oliveira’s adaptation is certainly not plot heavy, but it steadily builds to a climax that rings with significance for viewers who have properly invested in the film. Instead of sweeping passions, Francisca is all about bitter ironies.
Francisca’s leads, because Oliveira required them to perform in a deadened, distant manner that would ordinarily get them critically panned—and they fulfilled their duties faithfully. Yet, Mario Barroso periodically gets to channel Iago a bit when playing Branco and Diogo Doria still manages to exude unhealthy contempt and resentment as Jose Augusto. Rather impressively, Teresa Menezes seems to physically shrink and wither as Owen, but her character’s motivations remain largely inscrutable.
Make no mistake, Francisca is a cerebral film rather than a heart-tugger or a tear-jerker. It is also a very distinctive work from an enormously important filmmaker. This is an intriguing film for those who can compare it to Raul Ruiz’s versions of Mysteries of Lisbon and Oliveira’s own Slipper, but it is not and was never intended for a mass audience. Recommended accordingly, Francisca opens virtually today (11/13), “at” the Metrograph.