A titanic figure, the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015) got his start in the era of silent cinema and completed his last feature at the age of 105.
Not every one of Oliveira’s many films, the vast majority of which were made after he turned 65, can be considered great — he was a filmmaker given to experimentation. But a good many are, and “Francisca” (1981), streaming in a digital restoration from Film at Lincoln Center, is one.
A leisurely two hours and 45 minutes, set in mid-1850s Portugal with the country in unseen political turmoil, the movie tells a tale of “ill-omened passion” (its suitably Victorian term for insane romantic love). Oliveira constructs an enigmatic, unbalanced triangle consisting of a beautiful and innocent English woman, Francisca “Fanny” Owen, a louche and handsome Portuguese aristocrat, José Augusto, and the cynical writer Camilo Castelo Branco.
Although resembling a 19th-century novel, “Francisca” is actually meta 19th-century; rather than making the setting seem natural, Oliveira renders it strange. The movie is an adaptation of a pastiche written by the feminist author Agustina Bessa-Luís. Branco is a real person, one of Portugal’s great writers, but Fanny and José Augusto (played by Teresa Menezes and Diogo Dória) are larger-than-life fictions. The actors who play the English angel and her Byronic cad are taller than their cast mates and — divinities come to earth — tower over the diminutive Branco.
“Francisca” is both classical and postmodern, a cross between a lush Visconti period piece and the stylized expressionism of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Oliveira evokes the past as though reconstructing a dinosaur from a handful of bones. Different planes of existence intersect throughout. José Augusto is introduced at a society ball, a wax statue amid a riotous whirl of masked revelers. More than once, the aristocratic protagonists stumble upon singing peasants seemingly oblivious to the doings of their social betters.
Oliveira is a frugal filmmaker and a master of camera placement. Many sequences play out in a single shot as if to document their own artifice. Fanny’s theatrical line readings alternate with deadpan grand gestures. Having been expelled from Fanny’s family home, suggestively named Paraiso (Paradise), José Augusto twice rides his horse into Camilo’s room to report the news.
Mysteries proliferate. On the eve of his marriage to Fanny, José Augusto receives, courtesy of Camilo, a packet of letters written by Fanny. Reading them, he is driven into a cold fury — that can only be construed as pure plot device. Neither the content nor the original recipient of the fatal letters is ever revealed. (Nor, it should be said, is the exact nature of the couple’s perverse, self-defeating desire.)
“The soul is a vice,” Fanny proclaims at one point, and, after running off with José Augusto, she dreams of Camilo bad-mouthing his rival and threatening to take her soul away. Much in the movie implies that the writer has stage-managed the whole fiction. He does have the last word — or rather, Oliveira does.
For all its doomy descent into darkness, “Francisca” ends in the boîte where José Augusto received the letters, reprising the gay music of the masked ball that opened the film.
Available for streaming at Film at Lincoln Center, starting Nov. 12; filmlinc.org.
Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies.