Film Scouts Interviews

"Convento, O" (The Convent) Press Conference
at the 1995 New York Film Festival

by Karen Jaehne

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Date: Wednesday, October 4, 1995

QUESTION: Mr. De Oliveira, THE CONVENT contains a repeated image of a man with his arms outstretched. Is this a Christ figure? MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: I hope not. It's certainly not a deity. Maybe a saint, but which saint? Let's figure this out. I don't think you know him in English. He lived there at that monastery and wrote texts and gave himself over to living a holy life.

QUESTION: How do your personal religious convictions relate to your film?

MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: It's a film. I'm a man. I was raised a Catholic, educated by Jesuits and I feel a strong connection to my faith. But I am a man with doubts, whereas I think the religious life is reserved for devout people, very special ones.

QUESTION: Would you comment on the Bible's account of Good and Evil?

MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: Oh, dear. I take the Biblical view as poetry. We must remember that Christ was not only God, he was man. The temptation on the Mount is what I have taken for my story in the convent. It is inspired by the Bible's depiction of all these good and evil characters, but the character who inspired me most was Catherine Deneuve. I wanted desperately to work with her.

QUESTION: How do we interpret the idea of Shakespeare's Sephardic background? That he was a Spanish poet named Perez who fled the Inquisition?

MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: There may be some evidence that he could have been that, but the character played by John Malkovich is intent on discovering Shakespeare's secret, only to discover that his greatness lay in his humanity--whether he was English, Spanish, German or French! And that he was a writer greatly influenced by the Book of Job.

QUESTION: Catherine Deneuve, would you comment on the magical atmosphere of the film?

CATHERINE DENEUVE: It's wonderful for an actor to be taken out of the real world and given an opportunity to explore a place so metaphysical as the one in this film. Beside being just work, acting is also working with people who invite you into their dreams and trust you with their innermost being. The monastery where we shot is on a height and close to the sea. It's transformed by the director's eye, but the place is very much what you see--full of sea and silence. When I first met Mr. De Oliveira, he gave me only a part of the screenplay, but more important, he gave me photos of this place and convinced me of his vision.

QUESTION: Where is the place and does it have any special significance today?

CATHERINE DENEUVE: It's in the north of Portugal and many people visit it, but it has no holy significance. It's well known by a certain kind of tourist, but it is actually now a foundation where conferences are held... comme ca.

QUESTION: How is Manoel de Oliveira different from other directors?

CATHERINE DENEUVE: It was a very intimate set. There wasn't even a stills photographer, which gave us lots of freedom to feel relaxed and relate. Sometimes Mr. De Oliveira wants so much, but he doesn't want to tell you what your "motivation" is. He couldn't say very precisely what he wanted, but I was very protected in a way. Because I don't speak Portuguese, I had to get by on a different level, and I existed in my little cocoon of not knowing their language. So of course I had to respond to my director differently. It was a little like Bunuel, because it was so deep. The film is a poetic experience that is self-explanatory, I believe, so to ask us to explain it is to kill the story. Or to kill Mr. Oliveira's vision. It is so special. No discussion can address it.

QUESTION: What was your inspiration for making this film, Mr. Oliveira?

MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: Without Catherine Deneuve it would not have been made. I asked the writer to organize the story around Deneuve. I had always wanted to work with her, and a few years ago, a friend of mine met her and then told me she had said she liked my work.

CATHERINE DENEUVE: We met in Lisbon after I had met his Belgian friend, and we quickly came to an understanding. He got me a script rather soon, and I was very pleased....

QUESTION: And Malkovich? How did you come to work with him?

MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: Well, I didn't choose him. He just came.

CATHERINE DENEUVE: The producer approached John, who lives much of the year in France, so we get in touch with him there. It turned out that he also admired Manoel de Oliveira and it was all so simple.

QUESTION: Catherine Deneuve, you don't seem to be making English language films much anymore.

CATHERINE DENEUVE: It's not intentional. I would be pleased, but I haven't found interesting scripts. I've worked with Andre Techine lately and with a young unknown director on a short film. I choose my roles carefully.

QUESTION: The last sequence of the film of the woman emerging from the water evokes mythological associations. Did you mean that?

MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA: Of course! When Catherine Deneuve emerges from the water like a goddess, it allows the film to float along on all that mythology and beauty and continue in your own head... so it never ends.

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