Amidst a European industry increasingly eager to produce films for transatlantic audiences, Manoel de Oliveira, 89, makes a case for two now-venerable continental traditions, the classical and the avant-garde. Mysterious, vexing, but elegant, de Oliveira's cinema manages to be both old-fashioned and modern, serene while self-reflexive-an ambitious combination, but one which wholly cuts against the grain of the blockbuster-fueled '90s. His films don't emanate so much as they leak out of Europe; not all even make the festival rounds, exactly one is on commercial videotape, and Voyage to the Beginning of the World is only the director's second picture in this decade to receive theatrical distribution. De Oliveira, however, as though swearing his ignorance on the commercial world, pumps out about a film a year, following a line of experiment that, while rigidly personal, is also persuasively eminent, exploring over and over the theme of class division, the philosophical limits to uncovering history, and the related problem of recreating the past with the aid of an illusion, cinema. But, along with his canniness, de Oliveira displays an undertow of mystery, a conviction in eternal love, a Bu˜uelian delight in raking the upper classes, and a taste for classical beauty unsurpassed by better-known film masters such as Godard and Rivette. The weightiness of de Oliveira's films is balanced by their immaculacy and wit. In a decade more conducive to foreign-language films, perhaps this obstinate and demanding Portuguese director would have been known and celebrated by now.

The fact that Marcello Mastroianni stars in Beginning could be read as a wavering by de Oliveira to recruit a star, and at last make a grab for some broad aclaim-but, just as easily, it could be seen to follow a pattern by Mastroianni, who late in life teamed with a number of critic's auteurs, making a cameo in Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds and starring in Raul Ruiz's Three Lives and Only One Death. As it stands, this last performance of Mastroianni's fits beautifully into the careers of both actor and director. The venerated Italian plays Manoel, a Portuguese film director accompanying one of his actors, Afonso (Jean Yves Gautier), on a driving excursion through Portugal's farmland. Afonso was raised and lives in France; but his father originated from Portugal, and his recent death has set Afonso to wondering about his roots. Two other actors from the production accompany them, both played by regulars in de Oliveira's troupe, Duarte (Diogo Džria) and Judite (Leonor Silveira). A fifth figure on the drive, shadowy, infrequently appearing, and never seen in full close-up, is identified in the credits as the tour guide, and is played by de Oliveira himself. They are traveling to locate Afonso's aunt, who may have some recollections of his father.

The trip stays in the present, but the past keeps gliding up to it, as the auto whisks down old roads and the travelers converse about long-ago events. The past isn't graspable, yet it exerts a force. The group stop at a weathered statue to hear a peasant recite a centuries-old poem; later, pausing at a ruined site, they end up discussing their lost loves amongst themselves. The concrete here-and-now begins to seem undistinct. 'Between eras, there lies a time which becomes the present,' Duarte says cryptically on one car ride. The director spells out his point by shooting out the back window of the van, showing scenery moving away and giving an impression of time slipping by; he then shows the landscape passing from the car's side, conveying a sense of new features coming into view. Merely by changing angle, one's eye catches the future rushing in, instead of the past pulling back. The effect is very simple, but it is precisely because it is so unadorned that it has an impact. Distinguishing past from present, it's suggested, has much to do with how one lives and looks at things.

While the characters delve into their pasts and the history of Portugal, Beginning doubles as de Oliveira's browsing through his own backlog of work. Three of his own films, No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990), The Day of Despair (1992) and The Convent (1995), already presented an escorted tour or journey as a whimsical metaphor for the construction of a film narrative, while another, The Cannibals (1988), comically depicted the breakdown in story development when characters vie all at once to attain the role of the film's narrator. The figure of de Oliveira in Beginning stays off to the side, a slightly nagging, but always silent visitor-no more obtrusive, really, than de Oliveira's easily identifiable visual style itself, which may be part of the point. His appearance lends a twist to the idea of a 'director's presence' creeping into a film.

Rather like Federico Fellini's Intervista, Beginning makes an unrushed journey, a loose summing up but not a dreary final testament, through a director's history, conducted by the filmmaker himself. Fellini strolled through the Cinecitta lot, finding strange resemblances to his old films and ones he saw as a youth. De Oliveira guides an entourage through lush forest very similar to that seen in his prior films, to a statue that recalls stone carvings in The Convent, and even past the hotel that was the setting for Valley of Abraham (1993). He further incorporates Džria, Silveira, and the atonal, romantic music of Joao Paes, composer of many of the director's films. Practically all of de Oliveira's pictures reflect on the medium of film, but Beginning is the first to address his own body of work in particular. By the end of Beginning, more than past and present have been blurred. Afonso finally tracks down his aunt, Emma, a woman of the country who guards herself from outsiders. Emma barely acknowledges his presence at first, but when Afonso convinces her that his blood comes from the same peasant stock as hers, she begins to tell him all she knows about his father's life. De Oliveira saves his most delicate, rapturous shot for Emma, beside a campfire at night, telling tales of young Portuguese men hauled off to foreign wars that they had no interest fighting. What she discusses is clearly over, but she herself hasn't changed in the intervening years. She is living the past and a traditional way of life.

Mastroianni gets a chance not only to work with one of Europe's hidden masters, he is also able to link his role to the work that he is perhaps best loved for, his films with Fellini. The structure of Beginning echoes that of Intervista, and both of these films feature the actor. At the same time, Mastroianni's role as a movie director instantly brings to mind his for-the-ages performance in 8-1/2. Here, he is a quieter and more collected man than in the earlier film, but his boyish prankishness is still evident. It's a sad yet beautiful way for Fellini's 'Snaporaz' to go out.

--Peter Henné