A confession: it's my first Oliveira (hang head in shame) and probably not an ideal introduction, but right off I can see that it's an unsettling work--at the very least brave, at the very most, radically great.
As far as initial impressions go, I think it's difficult to better my eleven-year-old nephew's capsule review: "It's so boring. Nothing's happening. This is the worst and ugliest movie ever made." I'd disagree with one comment outright--what with Emmanuel Machuel's capture of the harsh and brilliant Mediterranean sunlight (the very first image, of tiny figures with white handkerchiefs in hand like so many fluttering flower buds is stunning), the many magnificent structures paraded before the camera--there is in fact plenty of beauty for the eye. Too subtle a pleasure, I suppose, for my poor nephew to appreciate (Walt Disney World being his idea of a top travel destination).
Critics have commented on the stilted acting, the endless travelogue footage, the sudden explosive melodrama tacked on at the end. Stilted the acting may be and in fact is, but after Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni one can't quite dismiss wooden acting out of hand; you realize that some filmmakers use people in more abstract ways (Bresson called them "models") and I suspect Oliveira needed a daughter--an innocent--being lectured by her history-teacher mother to show us the received views, the 'conventional wisdom,' if you will, of modern Western society, as the pair make their way from Europe to Asia to join the girl's father in India.
A clue as to how Oliveira wants us to view the film I think can be found in the imagery; he often frames the monuments--the composition at the Pyramids of Giza come to mind--as backdrop against which the two protagonists can talk (the pyramids' apex come only up to the mother's head, and you get the distinct impression of forced perspective--as if the pyramids were models made to look like they were huge). You think of dioramas viewed in museums (forced perspective is a common trick in dioramas), of exhibits found, discussed, passed by (in this case it's the exhibits that do the moving, not the people). The mother/teacher's monologue is at times interrupted by helpful outsiders--a priest, a flirtatious Portugese actor, the way helpful museum guides would--after which the mother firmly takes over again.
Even with a mother's natural efforts to simplify and sterilise (or at least, render less violent) the course of history, the girl can't help but encounter disturbing facts--that the Hagia Sophia, for example, changed hands between Christians and Muslims during one of their many wars, and the church's interior was renovated to accomodate the beliefs of both religions. As the two sail further east, we learn about Egypt and Napoleon's admonishment towards his soldiers: "Four thousand years of history look down upon you." The words were meant to intimidate Napoleon's soldiers, humble them before the weight of history but in Oliveira's film they seem to have the opposite effect: they distance you from all that gravitas and trivialize history into a list of dates with only a tenuous link to one's present circumstance (the way monuments seem to slide by behind the discussing pair helps reinforce this impression).
The Portiguese child looks upon these aged edifices, studying them, judging them through the words of her carefully moderate (if selectively truthful) tour guide of a mother; the journey serenely continues. The museum tour is at various times interrupted by the boarding of three beautiful divas: Delfina (Catherine Deneuve), Helena (Iren Papas) and Francesca (Stefania Sandrelli); they sit at the table of Comandante John Walesa (John Malkovich) and talk culture, history and their personal lives.
From a travelogue to a a round-table discussion to what will turn out to be a literally explosive climax; I did say the film was brave, if not foolhardy. On one hand it's a young girl's education on the world and its ways; on the other it's a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.
France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd--or maybe not--that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)--who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.
What's missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt's monuments are shown and discussed, they're discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it's from the Mid-East--Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship's officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture's startling response.
Is Oliveira racist in his treatment? I don't think so; I think he's carefully defined the point of view from which he discusses and presents the issue: mostly as a middle-to-upper class European, by most definitions civilized and educated, who remains blissfully ignorant of the turmoil in the region. When turmoil breaks through ignorance, it's sudden, awful, and completely bewildering--Oliveira and his characters have no time to learn the motivations, nor do they fully grasp what is happening (or even who really did it). It's the way matters would proceed, Oliveira seems to be saying, if he himself were on that ship; the shock and incomprehension frozen on the captain's face (the film's final image) could very well be his own. Not, perhaps the ideal state of being in this day and age, but at least an honest one (more honest than informed, anyway, but aware of even that), fully alert of its limitations, and its own impending doom.
As for the actions of the child in the end--a simple but moving allegory, seems to me (as mother and child stand on the upper decks, Oliveira lights them in an unearthly glow, as if they are glimpses of figures already not of this world). He implies that a world where not all voices are heard can very well become (if not downright chaotic already) a world with little time for such traits as nurturing affection and common humanity.