December 11, 2008 / 2:10 PM / 10 years ago

Portugal's Oliveira cranking out the films at 100

LISBON (Reuters Life!) - The grand old man of Portuguese film celebrated his 100th birthday on Thursday by starting production of his latest film.

Portuguese director Manuel de Oliveira gestures during a news conference in Lisbon in this file photo taken December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

For an industry preoccupied with youthful glamour, it is perhaps hard to imagine how Manoel de Oliveira can actually make films at all. But the hearty centenarian appears to have few secrets to his longevity other than a passion for film.

“This is the only day of the week that I rest,” he told journalists on Saturday, when he interrupted his busy schedule to give a rare press conference.

Asked what his secret was to keep going at 100, he responded with dry wit: “It is work. The rest is eating, drinking sleeping, doing what other people do.”

The man, who is feted like few others in his native Portugal, made his first film 77 years ago — a 30-minute documentary about life on the Douro River.

Since then he has directed nearly 50 films and received numerous decorations, including two Golden Lions in Venice and a Golden Palm for his lifetime achievements this year in Cannes.

Most people would slow down with age, but Oliveira has done the opposite. Since 1990, he has made at least one film a year and there is no end in sight to his plans.

Last year he finished Christopher Columbus - the Enigma, a story which suggested Columbus was Portuguese. Oliveira and his wife also acted in the film.

Oliveira, who started out wanting to be an actor and comes from an industrial family from northern Portugal, said 10 years ago that he was making up for lost time.

From 1942, when he completed his acclaimed neo-realist Aniki-Bobo, until dictator Antonio Salazar died in 1970, he was only able to produce one full-length feature film. He was once arrested by the secret police during Salazar’s rule, which he spent working in the family business.

The pace on his latest film, an adaptation of Portuguese realist writer Eca de Queiroz’s Singularities of a blond girl, shows no sign of slowing down. It has to be ready for viewing at the Berlin Film Festival in February, he says.

Oliveira’s films have often been set in Porto and the relative backwardness of parts of Portugal’s north have added backdrops of mystery and superstition to his films.

He has also produced darker works, such as Anxiety, which plays on the theme of death, and Cannibals — the story of a woman who commits suicide on her wedding day. Tormented relationships between men and women return as a theme in many of his films.

But Oliveira’s mature age doesn’t appear to have darkened his quick wit.

“Since it is about a young, blond woman, it has to include a young, blond woman,” he quipped, when asked if it was hard for him to relate to the 22-year-old leading lady in his latest film.

Oliveira is forever discarding commercial concerns as a measure of success and perhaps his desire to continue making films is the true secret of his staying power.

“Art has a function of teaching about the human condition. We live in hope, hope is fundamental,” he says. “If I have the opportunity to make a film, that is the best birthday present I can receive.”

Reporting by Axel Bugge

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