Manoel de Oliveira ranks among Portugal's most renowned and prolific filmmakers. The son of a wealthy industrialist, he was born in Oporto on December 12, 1908. While attending school in Galicia, Spain, Oliveira excelled in sports and auto racing, but his long-term goal was to become an actor. To this end, he enrolled in an acting school founded by Italian filmmaker Rino Lupo in 1928. However, after viewing Walther Ruttmann's lyrical documentary Berlin -- Symphony of a City (1927), Oliveira's acting aspirations began to take a backseat to his increasing interest in filmmaking. In 1928, he bought a 35 mm movie camera and shot his first non-fiction film, Douro, Fainafluvial, a chronicle of life in his native Oporto; it was released in 1931. Oliveira's interest in the documentary form remained with him throughout his life, and would greatly influence his later fictional features. In 1933, the burgeoning director made his acting debut in a feature film, in A Canção de Lisboa/The Song of Lisbon (1933), Portugal's first sound film. He also made several short films, many of which were unreleased.
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It was not until 1942 that Oliveira made his feature-film debut as a director with Aniki-Bóbó. With its naturalistic approach, Aniki-Bóbó was the forerunner of the Italian neorealist cinema. However, it was a commercial failure in Portugal, and it was only with time that this portrait of Oporto's street children became the nation's most popular and acclaimed film. Despite the film's promise, Oliveira was unable to complete his several subsequent film projects due to a lack of official support, so he focused on running his various family businesses until 1955, when he traveled to Germany to explore new filmmaking technology and purchase a better camera. The following year, Oliveira used that camera to make a short but influential documentary, again set in Oporto, O Pintor e a Cidade/The Painter and the City (1956). In 1963, he reemerged as a major director with his seminal documentary O Acto de Primavera/Rite of Spring, an account of peasants staging an annual passion play. The film marked a turning point for Oliveira; instead of focusing on realism, it reflected his belief that cinema existed as a means of preserving the theater. He followed up the documentary with the medium-length film A Caça/The Hunt, which, aside from a happy ending imposed by the censors, was as grim as the previous film was happy; the two films have been said to symbolize Oliveira's conception of heaven and hell. Though both films garnered the director international acclaim and made him the hero of other young Portuguese filmmakers, Oliveira would not make another feature until the early '70s.
When some of Portugal's new directors formed an innovative cooperative, CPC, they invited Oliveira to make the group's first film. The result, O Passado e o Presente/Past and Present (1971), was the first of what would be called Oliveira's "Quartet of Frustrated Loves." Oliveira would abruptly fall out of favor in 1977 with his poorly received adaptation of Camilo Castello Branco's popular romantic novel Amor de Perdição/Ill-Fated Love. Part of the aforementioned quartet, the film originally aired as a four-part television miniseries. Finding himself the butt of a national joke, Oliveira rallied back with what was arguably one of his finest films, Francisca (1981), in which he used the writer Branco as a main character. The final entry in Oliveira's "Frustrated Loves" series, O Dia Do Desespero/The Day of Despair (1992), returned to Branco's life to recount the day he shot himself. Through the 1990s, Oliveira's output became more frequent; he released about one film each year. Two of his better-known works, Viagem Ao Principio Do Mundo/Journey to the Beginning of the World (1997) and La Carta (1999), featured two members of the same celebrated family, the former being Marcello Mastroianni's last film, and the latter, a 17th century love story set in modern society, starring Mastroianni's daughter, Chiara Mastroianni. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi