With his latest film, the ever prolific 102-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira proves there is always room for talent to grow. Shot for shot, the Strange Case of Angelica offers one luscious image after another. The movie is simple and focused, forgiving a few overly long, slower-paced scenes. However, the dynamism in the film’s mise–en–scène reveals a director who knows the art of cinema like the back of his hand. With the Strange Case of Angelica, Oliveira seems to make up for so many wasted shots by less experienced directors, bringing some balance back to the universe of cinema.
The Portuguese director’s films have always been under-represented in the US, and only began seeing hype as he has grown older while continuing to work. To those still unfamiliar with Oliveira’s work, one director that comes to mind while watching Angelica is Federico Fellini. Not that the two directors share all that much in common. There is a phantasmagorical quality, not to mention religious overtones, to Angelica. Still, it’s not nearly as frenetic as a Fellini movie. In fact, Angelica feels more like early period, pre-Dolce Vita Fellini.
A quiet tension seems to gradually build throughout the film, as the protagonist, Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), grows more obsessed with Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala). The tension begins when an aristocratic Catholic family hires the amateur photographer, who happens to be Jewish, to photograph the deceased young bride just before her funeral. It is key to note that, to devout Jews, a body is not to be displayed or even viewed privately, much less photographed, once deceased. While at work, the apprehensive Isaac soon notices something odd behind Angelica’s frozen smile. In his lens and on the pictures, she seems to come to life, her eyes blinking and smile broadening.
The stylized and modern effects Oliveira employs to render the effect of Angelica’s liveliness in death offers a stark contrast to the vintage background where the story unfolds. Though the era is never revealed, the movie seems to take place in the early sixties or late fifties, though there are modern cars and books with UPC bar codes on them. However, Isaac uses a mint condition, older camera, and the exteriors and interiors of buildings seem frozen from an era long past.
Even the landscape Isaac looks out upon recalls some ancient time, enhancing the film’s surreal quality. At one point in the movie, Isaac ventures out to the farmland across his window to photograph men tilling the soil with hoes. Justina (Adelaide Teixeira), the woman renting a room to him, criticizes Isaac’s choice of subject matter, telling him how silly she thinks the men are for bashing at the earth with hoes when technology has advanced so much. When she sees the resulting photos drying on a line in Isaac’s room next to images of the deceased Angelica, she says, “Oh, my Lord, those horrible laborers, next to the portrait of the little girl who died.”
Isaac is clearly presented as someone out of touch with the current day and age. But, when he first sees Angelica and participates in something taboo to his religion, it marks the beginning of a journey that will shake him to his very core. Oliveira never tries to explain what is happening inside Isaac’s mind with exposition from the protagonist’s mouth. Instead the director seems to open Isaac’s subconscious to the viewer, showing us his dreams featuring Angelica, which may just be slipping into the real world. The film only seems to slow down during a lengthy scene when fellow lodgers at the home where Isaac is staying grow concerned with his growing distance, and seem to wonder aloud too much. The film, like all great classic foreign movies and even the archaic silents it sometimes pays tribute too works its magic best when there is nothing explicitly said, and Oliveira instead presents the viewer with images pregnant with depth. The imagery is always interesting, and during one sequence, Oliveira uses effects out of a Lumière movie to show Isaac and Angelica as they float through the night sky, locked in an embrace.
Oliveira certainly establishes the film as if it were a dream, permitting for the inconsistency of the hi-tech world that sometimes seems to penetrate Isaac’s surroundings, which may even come from his perceptions. Oliveira establishes the film’s oneiric narrative with a subtle touch, first by establishing a slow, distant pace where he focuses on nothing. There are only three cuts before we see Isaac in the first medium shot of the movie, and they take six minutes to unfold. The first is a cityscape of the port town where the story takes place, shot at night as a delicate classical piano melody plays over the opening credits. Then there is a cobblestone street outside a photography studio as rain pours down, where we learn of a man’s need to hire a photographer ahead of the funeral of a young woman. Then we finally cut to Isaac, fiddling with the guts on an old radio, emitting static. It is the middle of the night, but Justina comes up to inform him of the job when the man appears at her house to find the photographer.
Even more surreal is Isaac’s journey into the home where he will encounter Angelica for the first time. As Isaac enters the home with the sister of Angelica, Maria Dolores (Sara Carinhas) as his guide, who happens to be a nun, near motionless groups of mourners stare at Isaac as he is lead into the house. The shots unfold in a dreamlike manner, beginning with the mourners nearly frozen, and then Isaac and his guide take their steps, under one archway, through a hall, in through a door, and into a chamber where Angelica lies in repose. Until then, only dark drab shades of brown, gray and black dominated the film’s color palette. Then we are faced with Angelica, dressed in her white wedding dress, frozen on a settee with a bright blue cushion. She has a tranquil smile, luminescent pink skin, and almost golden blond hair. Even in death, she represents another world to Isaac, something more alive than life itself. This is made apparent when he looks through his lens at her and when her spirit seems to appear to him over and over again as the movie quietly unfolds as if in a dream.
In the end, the Strange Case of Angelica is a film that celebrates living while meditating on death, be it the end of life or the passage of a lost time. At times humorous in the surreal sense of Fellini and other times philosophical as only a wise, aged man like Oliveira can bring out in a movie, the Strange Case of Angelica offers much in its simple package. The story is subtle and asks the viewer to inform the images with deeper meanings, and I am well tempted to go at this film with an analytical knife, but this is a movie that rewards open-minded viewing and deserves to be experienced with what one brings to the movie.
The Strange Case of Angelica opens 7 p.m. Friday night (June 10) and plays through June 15 exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, who loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review.