If there was ever a film that was Echo and Narcissus in one and the same gesture it is Visita ou memórias e confissões by Manoel de Oliveira. A film so precious that it had to be a secret. Filmed in 1981 right after the director, then 73, had completed his tetralogy of frustrated loves with a heart that is no danger anymore because it has stopped, Oliveira had allowed screenings of the film only on two occasions during his lifetime. The first was a screening for the crew and cast and the second was during a retrospective held in Lisbon. Now the film has been freed due to a death, Oliveira‘s death at the age of 106 (every year in prison for the film was a year of life for its director). Rather than a memory or a confession, it is a testimony of a man who we can feel as much in the sensibility of his sounds, images and cuts as in his story. After all, this is a work of fiction, a fiction of the eternal we all can touch. But can we be sure of that?
Why Echo and Narcissus? Well, as the film is largely concerned with its director (who even doubts if it is a good idea to make a film about himself while speaking the credits out loud in a way that could make Godard jealous) it acts like the eternal beauty of the mirror Narcissus is in love with. The film is like an album of selfies of Angélica where every image becomes a saved memory of things otherwise forgotten. Visita ou memórias e confissões is a mother who gives birth to herself (after she has died). While one might find this obsession with images and their immortality beautiful, one might encounter some difficulties with applying it to a self-portrait. But we can relax because firstly, this is not really a film about Oliveira. It is a fiction made of memories and confessions of the director, certainly personal, autobiographical but still made with the colours of numerous flowers and the smile of Mona Lisa, who is looking at us in almost every shot in which Oliveira himself appears as well as with a sense of time that brings this Narcissus closer to Echo. Anticipating his own self-importance, the director decided for the film to become something else, to not-be Narcissus but to be the Echo of his own Narcissus. He locked it away and opened a time in-between the mirror and the projection of the mirror. In this time he didn‘t give birth to his own life after his death, but to cinema, the fiction, the time itself. We can also speak of a time-image of timelessness or this first tear we all would have loved to save in a tiny box to remind us forever of whatever we think about. Yes, the film is the love story of Echo and Narcissus, past and present, images and voices and therefore it is a again a story of frustrated loves. It has to end in disappearance like the story of Echo and Narcissus. But there is something else here. Oliveira has tricked this disappearance when he locked the film away. We have heard about detailed notes some directors gave projectionists, but never before have the acts of distribution and projection been as much an artistic choice as in the case of Visita ou memórias e confissões. For those believing in miracles cinema is finally a magic lantern again. Oliveira will disappear for ever. As we know, the whole idea of Echo‘s love is also buried in repetition. Jacques Derrida has written a great deal about it. While repeating Echo manages to find her own voice. The same is true for the film. It gets its own life until it is not about what it is showing or whose time-image we are seeing but about the presence of cinema as such. It‘s a miracle.
Large parts of the film are not only concerned with Oliveira but also with the house he has been living in for 40 years, a house which he calls a labyrinth in another film, Porto da Minha Infância. It is visited by a shy camera movement and two voices (Teresa Madruga and Diogo Dória), images and voices. They enter the seemingly empty place and look at unspoken memories and confessions. It becomes quite clear that the house is as much the soul of Oliveira as it is the film. Not only does the lover of architecture project images of the past on the walls of the house later in the film and show us photographs that watch from silent cupboards, he also gives the film its structure by means of architecture. The question is always what is behind the next corner, what is above and under, what is the time of this room? The structure of the house is that of a film. Architecture is Narcissus, Cinema is Echo. A frame is an object, a shot is a memory of what has happened there and what is the madeleine (call it plot-point if you are one of those Hollywood dudes…) there. Rainer Werner Fassbinder once stated that he wanted to build a house with his films. Oliveira builded a film with his houses. Not only does he save the history of this special house that was designed by José Porto, he saves his own story in the house as if it was a museum.
There are three figures of time in Visita ou memórias e confissões. The first is the time of the house (its history). We can see it in the materiality while the two voices slowly pass through it and we can hear and see it when the director tells us about it and screens little scenes playing around the house. Moments of re-enactments switch with found footage, the shy camera moving through the house and Oliveira talking about his life. The second time is the fiction of the visit and the truth of the memories and confessions which we can call the story. The story circles around Oliveira‘s life and films. There are more places to visit than just the house where the voices catch glimpses of the past. For example, there is the house of his wife Maria Isabel, about whom the director talks with deep respect (not with passion) and there is Portugal‘s last film studio. All these places are full of vanishing life but the only thing that tells us about it is their emptiness (one may be reminded of Elia Kazan‘s The Last Tycoon). The third time is, as we already pointed out, the time the film was in the shadows of the heartbeat of the director. Then, it couldn‘t do any damage. Now that the heart stopped beating, the film begins again, it hurts, it enriches.
Maybe this is really one of the first realistic science-fiction films in which time travelling is made possible not as a matter of story but as a matter of fact. So, is Visita ou memórias e confissões really a work of fiction? As always this is not really a question. It is a film at the core of cinema and, like cinema, it was hidden in order to be born again in the presence of every look in the mirror, of every voice we fall in love with and of every frustration about not being able to love, to kill, to live and to die. But the film seems more simple than that.