The writing credits for this film by the 104 year old Portuguese director feature de Oliviera himself and Raul Brandão, whose play the film adapts. In a manner not dissimilar from another veteran’s recent offering, Killer Joe, (although Friedkin is a stripling at the age of 78), this is an unadorned cinematic adaptation of a stageplay. The play tells the relatively simple story of an elderly man whose son returns after eight years, only to steal from him and leave. The action takes place over the course of 24 hours. Although ‘action’ is a somewhat misleading term.
The opening image is a beguiling, near-cubist framing of a boat at a jetty, in low light. From there, the camera takes us to a small, enclosed house, located within a network of alleys. We will only leave the house on a couple of occasions, and get no further than the corner of the street. The son, upon his return, observes his parents’ house populated by the grand old dames of European cinema, (Cardinale and Moreau, who has a scene-stealing cameo), and says it feels like a cemetery, or words to this effect. It’s hard to disagree with him: no-one under the age of 60 could hold out for too long here, and indeed half the audience of a half-dozen walked out of the Cinemateca before the film had finished. The theft of his father’s savings offers a Dostoyevskian twist. It’s more or less warranted. Why should the elderly hang on by their bootstraps whilst the young have living to get on with? The son’s actions are shown to be immoral by his wife’s reaction, (she has lived with his parents during his absence and tries to stop him stealing), but if there is a parable at work within Gebo and the Shadow, then it would be the way in which Europe’s elderly generation has stockpiled wealth whilst much of its youth now flounders on the brink of poverty.
It’s hard to say if this subtext is something Oliviera and Brandao are seeking to express. If they were, then the retort might be that the oldsters should make way and free up resources for a younger cinematic generation. (According to IMDB the budget for the film was over 1.5 million euros.) There’s something staggeringly impressive in the way the filmmaker continues to work beyond the age of a hundred, but Gebo and the Shadow is not doing much to redefine the medium.