An aging director (Mastroianni) remembers his own youth, whilst making a documentary about a famous French film star's (Gautier) search for his father's origins in Portugal.
At the venerable age of 89, De Oliveira is the world's oldest active filmmaker and the only one to have begun his career in the silent era. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that this odyssey is very much an old man's movie - much of it shot through the rear window of a retreating car to reinforce its sense of farewell and finality.
What makes this sad film even more poignant is that it is the swan song of Marcello Mastroianni, who died shortly after it wrapped. With awareness of his condition etched on the face so familiar from his 171 movies, Mastroianni plays Manoel, a director revisiting the places of his youth while filming his latest picture. Every inch the stranger in his own land, he reminisces about his education under Jesuits and the delights he used to experience in a luxury hotel which is now a dilapidated ruin.
But, just as this leisurely tour begins to weave its spell, the focus of attention shifts to Afonso (Gautier), a French actor in Marcello's cast who is visiting the Portuguese aunt he never knew he had. The fond nostalgia is suddenly replaced by human drama, as Afonso tries to persuade his aunt to overcome her nationalistic prejudices and accept him - stranger though he is.
This is the kind of deliberate, literate film that makes arthouse seem so forbidding. The symbolism is occasionally heavy-handed: like the sequence staged before a wooden statue of a one-armed man with a heavy beam on his shoulder used to infer life is a long, lonely struggle. It's hard to see who will be worthy to bear the burden when De Oliveira finally lays it down.
With so many dispassionate pictures around, there's a great need for reflective, personal films like this one.