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CONVENT, THE (O COVENTO) (director/writer: Manoel De Oliveira; screenwriter: based on an idea by Augustina Bessa-Luis; cinematographer: Mario Barroso; editors: Manoel De Oliveira/Valerie Loiseleux; cast: Catherine Deneuve (Helene Padovik), John Malkovich (Professor Michael Padovik), Duarte D’Almeida (Baltazar), Luis Miguel Cintra (Baltar), Leonor Silveira(Piedade), Heloisa Miranda (Berta), Gilberto Goncalves (Fisherman); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Paulo Branco; Lionsgate; 1995-Portugal/France-in English, Portuguese and French with English subtitles)
Always literate, visually appealing, and soulful… .

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Octogenarian Portuguese filmmaker Manoel De Oliveira (“Belle Toujours”/”Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl“/”Abraham Valley“)tussles with much gusto to battle with literary myths and religious beliefs, as in this case he films an idea by Augustina Bessa-Luis that’s weirdly influenced by Goethe’s Faust and the eternal conflict over good and evil–but taking us aback by offering a strange variation on that classic tale.

Scholarly American professor Michael Padovik (John Malkovich) and his elegant French wife Helene (Catherine Deneuve) arrive at an ancient Portuguese monastery so that he can do further work at their indispensable library on his ground-breaking theory that Shakespeare was actually a Spanish-Jew. The isolated convent, located in a lush Garden of Eden setting, shows no monks, but has as its guardian the sinister Baltar (Luis Miguel Cintra), his volatile assistant Baltazar (Duarte D’Almeida) and the astrology influenced housekeeper Berta (Heloisa Miranda). Balthar gives off not too subtle hints that he’s the Devil, and for his own amusement assigns the convent’s pretty pure-hearted new young curator, Piedade (Leonor Silveira), to assist the professor in his research–hoping he can spark a mutual attraction and thereby get them to sin.

Helene acts miffed, feeling her pride has been hurt, when she realizes hubby is attracted tothe archivist Piedade. Thereby she diabolically enlists the aid of Baltar, who proclaims he loves her and would do anything for her, to lure the innocent Piedade into the middle of the mysterious enchanted Jurassic Forest and make her disappear forever (a forest whose center is supposedly an abyss that is alluring to the pure in heart). This leads to a number of supernatural events, that adds a number of surprising twists to the Goethe classic, as the professor will suddenly become disenchanted from his research for immortality and abandon his project to return to Paris with his wife (think of the Helen of Troy myth!).

Always literate, visually appealing, and soulful, but nevertheless leaving us with an ambiguous ending about good and evil being now as ubiquitous as in ancient times. De Oliveira directs a serious work that is playfully presented, spreading its ideas on the transformation of souls (from a Christian viewpoint) into a lumpy wisdom that’s just as much twaddle as it is substantive. Yet still enjoyable because De Oliveira is such a good storyteller and gets finely tuned performances from his talented cast, who keep things edgy (though not emotionally engaging) throughout as an enigmatic metaphysical mystery.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”