The Convent | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

The Convent 

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Manoel de Oliveira's The Convent (1995) has little conventional dramatic tension and a strange, almost surreal ending, but this meditation on good and evil is allusive, poetic, and deeply affecting. Michael (John Malkovich) is a professor who arrives with his wife Helene (Catherine Deneuve) at a Spanish monastery to research his theory that Shakespeare was originally a Spanish Jew named Jacques Perez, which he thinks could have been anglicized to "Shakespeare." The head of the monastery, Baltar, is attracted to Helene, while Michael notices the pretty librarian; the shifting relations among the six characters--no one else is seen until the very end--give the film some of the qualities of chamber music. De Oliveira, a Portuguese who made his first film in 1929, laces this work with philosophical discussions, making it a meditation on human destiny. Baltar's pursuit of Helene and the other characters' strivings are forms of inevitable but tragic hubris, which is at its most extreme in Baltar; near the end he says, "I am not a man." But de Oliveira's mostly static camera gives the monastery, its architecture, and its environs a weighty, brooding presence. We often see characters' faces before we see what they're looking at: a long take frames Michael and Helene as they gaze into the mouth of a cave where Baltar's assistant describes the hard life of the early monks who lived there, and the effect is to tie their individual lives to history. The tension between the actors' lively individualized performances and one's sense that the characters are archetypes playing roles that have been played a thousand times before is part of what makes the film so moving. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 26 through February 1.

--Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.

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