Since September 11th, we’ve heard a great deal about Western Civilization from its self-described defenders. Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture emerges from this zeitgeist, marked lamentably by all its unsavory characteristics: self-congratulation, cultural pretension, and Islamophobia. This portentous essay lacks even basic cinematic accoutrements, like sufficient light and color. Oliveira wants nothing to get in the way of his message.
At the outset, we meet history professor Rosa Maria (graceful Leonor Silveira), and her endearingly precocious seven-year-old daughter, Maria Joana (Filipa de Almeida), aboard a cruise ship. They are on their way to Bombay, where they will reunite with Rosa Maria’s husband, an air pilot. She wants to visit the historical sites she has only read about and give her daughter a history lesson in the process: in the port city of Marseille, they converse with a member of a dying breed, a fisherman; at the Acropolis in Athens, they learn about religious rituals from an orthodox priest; and in Istanbul, they listen to a tour guide talk about the medieval religious wars between Muslims and Christians. Throughout, the two engage in Socratic exchanges: “What is a myth?” Maria Joana asks her mother, whose answer only inspires more questions.
Up to this point, the film is relatively bearable. All nuance is thrown overboard, however, when one of the haughtiest band of characters ever assembled enters the picture. Comandante John Walesa (the ever-pretentious John Malkovich) invites Rosa Maria and Maria Joana to dine with his guests. Delfina (Catherine Deneuve), a divorced corporate executive, is the very embodiment of French hauteur; Helena (Irene Papas) is legendary Greek actress who bemoans the disuse of her native tongue; and Francesca (Stefania Sandrelli) is an over-the-hill Italian model who regrets not having children.
When those gathered are not pompously holding forth on world history, they exchange tired observations on love, betrayal, and death. Of course, this sounds comically unnatural and insincere. Real people don’t speak this way. These characters, armed with their superior civilization, are clearly above us. Their self-importance reaches its zenith when Helena warns the others about the lack of modernity in the Arab world. Though Arabs once presided over a model civilization, she observes, instancing the contributions of ancient Egypt, today, fundamentalism is on the march. (There’s nothing like conventional wisdom packaged as singular insight.) This prattle sets the stage for the film’s bizarre denouement: “Arabs,” Captain John announces, have placed two bombs aboard the ship. The captain, who moments before had given Maria Joana a doll of a Muslim woman wearing a burka, urges all passengers to evacuate onto life boats. Amid the hysteria, Maria Joana forgets her doll and runs back to her room to retrieve it. When her mother tracks her down, we see the girl tenderly holding her doll, saying she will never abandon her. When they finally run to the ship’s exit, it’s too late. The life boats have already departed. When Captain John sees them, he urges them to jump as he gets set to attempt a heroic rescue. But there will be no moment of glory. The ship explodes seconds later.
The message is clear: the West must disengage from the Arab world. Otherwise, the West’s humanity and generosity — evidenced by Maria Joana’s concern for her Arab doll — will be its downfall. The film is preoccupied with the opinions of these smug Westerners, such that people of the Middle East only exist as stereotypes, enemies of civilization lurking in “our” midst. The 97-year-old Oliveira has resigned himself to the increasingly popular clash-of-civilizations worldview. But there is no such clash. It would behoove us to guard against these facile explanations in our increasingly complicated world.