A quiet, lovely ode to romance
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, February 18, 2011
Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is the only filmmaker working today who made his first movie in the silent-cinema era.
That's remarkable on its own, but it's also pertinent to the 102-year-old's latest feature, "The Strange Case of Angelica.'' This lovely but overly leisurely ode to romance and imagination is also a playful tribute to the supernatural films made many decades before the advent of CGI.
The movie's premise is simple, which is characteristic of de Oliveira's work. Late one rainy night, a servant from a local estate summons a photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trepa, the director's grandson). A pretty young bride, Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), has just died, and her imperious mother wants photographs of the corpse.
At the estate, Isaac is met by Angelica's sister, a nun. She's alarmed when she hears his name, assuming (correctly) that the photographer is Jewish. But he puts her at ease, and it seems the assignment will go well. Then Isaac peers through his viewfinder, and Angelica opens her eyes and smiles at him.
To everyone else, Angelica is dead. She's alive only on his film - somewhat like the many departed performers who still talk, laugh and breathe whenever one of their movies is shown.
Back at the boarding house where Isaac lives, Angelica continues to haunt him. In the photos he hangs to dry in his room, her face comes to life as it did the first time he saw her. Angelica visits the photographer at night, and the two float through the sky together. These reveries are rendered in black-and-white double exposures that recall the ghostly special effects of films from the 1920s.
To counter his ethereal visions, Isaac throws himself into photographing some vineyard workers. But his obsession with the dead woman ultimately overwhelms him.
The movie's story requires little conversation and could easily have been told in silent form. De Oliveira contrasts the dominant quiet with the breakfast chatter of the other boarding-house residents, who talk about climate change, Portugal's economic crisis and Isaac's oddities. These scenes are essential to the film's rhythm but otherwise not very interesting.
The fiscal problems discussed in the breakfast room seem to be contemporary, as do other details. But one of the strange things about "Angelica'' is that it's not set in any particular era. Isaac doesn't have a digital camera, and the concern about his Jewishness is more typical of the 1950s, which is when the director first began a script on this theme.
In addition to being beguilingly disorienting, "The Strange Case of Angelica'' is gorgeously composed and photographed. The movie does drag in places, but every frame justifies itself in sheer beauty.