PRINT October 2010


Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica

THE MOST EXISTENTIAL OF FILMMAKERS, Manoel de Oliveira has, for decades now, been making every movie as though it were his last. The Strange Case of Angelica, which the 101-year-old Portuguese director premiered last May in Cannes, is one more unique sign-off—drily comic, intentionally stilted, deliberate yet digressive, at once avant-garde and retro.

An amateur who made a silent documentary, Working on the River Douro, in 1931, then spent decades running his father’s lighting-fixture factory—as well as racing cars—and who managed to make only two features before 1970, Oliveira is an artist with a unique career trajectory. He hit his stride in his late sixties, soon after Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, and became ever more prolific as he aged—making more than half of his movies since turning eighty.

Manoel de Oliveira, O estranho caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica), 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 97 minutes. Clockwise from left: Nun (Sara Carinhas), Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), Mother (Leonor Silveira), Maid (Isabel Ruth), Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala).

Oliveira initially characterized cinema as a technology for documenting theater, and he first came to international attention with a series of literal-minded, minimalist costume dramas he would call the “Tetralogy of Frustrated Love.” Mostly adapted from wildly unpromising literary material, The Past and the Present (1971), Benilde or the Virgin Mother (1975), the four-and-a-half-hour Doomed Love (1978), and the director’s first masterpiece, Francisca (1981), were a distinctive blend of nineteenth-century melodrama and twentieth-century modernism that could seem as visionary as a Robert Wilson opera. Oliveira followed Francisca with the autobiographical Memories and Confessions (1982)—an official last film meant to be shown only after his death—and capped his “mature” period with The Satin Slipper (1985), a seven-hour telefilm adapted from Paul Claudel’s vast, enigmatic, all-but-unstageable drama of imperial ambition and l’amour fou.

Since then, Oliveira has explored (or invented) several more modest modes: stringent historical reconstructions (No, or the Vain Glory of Command [1990], Day of Despair [1992]); avant-garde treatments of old-fashioned narratives (Abraham’s Valley [1993], Inquietude [1998], The Uncertainty Principle [2002]); postmodern parodies of European modernism (My Case [1986], The Cannibals [1988], The Divine Comedy [1991], The Convent [1995]); rueful, self-reflexive elegies (Voyage to the Beginning of the World [1997], I’m Going Home [2001]); quasi documentaries or travelogues (A Talking Picture [2003], Christopher Columbus—The Enigma [2007]); and understated exercises in post-Buñuelian narrative perversity (Belle Toujours [2006], Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl [2009]).

Although technically another one of Oliveira’s frustrated love stories, The Strange Case of Angelica is also sui generis. As funny and peculiar as its title promises, the film is a modestly serene and sublime meditation on the essence of the motion-picture medium, glimpsed in the half-light of eternity. One rainy night, amateur photographer Isaac (Oliveira’s grandson Ricardo Trêpa) is rousted from his boardinghouse in the northern Portuguese town of Régua and brought to an estate where he is commissioned to create a last image of the family’s beautiful daughter, dead but a few days after her wedding. The family treats Isaac with a touch of suspicion—he’s immediately been identified as a Jew and hence an uncanny presence. (There may be only a thousand Jews in all of Portugal, but the country is haunted by the thousands of Sephardim who, like the parents of Baruch Spinoza, were driven from the country or forced to convert.)

Gathered in the parlor, the bereaved family solemnly watches as Isaac sets about photographing their beatific Angelica, laid out in her wedding dress on a fainting couch. For his part, Isaac is taken aback when, as he studies his subject through his viewfinder, she appears to open her eyes and smile . . . just for him. O muse of photography!

In Angelica, as in a number of recent Oliveira films, the era remains splendidly indeterminate. Despite some topical references and recent-vintage automobiles, the fashions and the ambience suggest the early 1950s—and the social protocols could be those of the late nineteenth century. Technology is similarly timeless: Isaac makes his images the old-fashioned way, by exposing photographic film to light. One miracle leads to another; after Isaac develops and prints Angelica’s portrait, the girl in the picture broadly grins at him. (Her bold gesture recalls the luridly blinking images of Jesus Christ once sold in neighborhood botanicas and Times Square novelty stores.)

Having thus produced a motion picture and, like more than one filmmaker, fallen in love with the image his camera has brought to life, Isaac repeatedly returns to Angelica’s family church, surreptitiously attending her funeral, photographing the nave, or pondering her crypt—each time encountering the same halfhearted beggar. He delays delivering the finished photographs, perhaps afraid that this will end his muse’s nocturnal visits. By night, smiling Angelica materializes to transport the photographer through the air; together they fly over the roofs of Régua and the River Douro and into the starry sky. The effect is pure Méliès, and so is the joke when Isaac falls from heaven to wake with a start in his bed. In the great avant-garde tradition, Strange Case is programmatically anachronistic. Although Oliveira here uses CGI for the first time (in the service of his first-ever dream sequence), the movie’s special effects might have seemed quaint a hundred years ago.

Manoel de Oliveira, O estranho caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica), 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 97 minutes. Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa).

The reclusive photographer’s evident preoccupation and odd behavior become an object of concern for his landlady and the subject of some discussion among his fellow boarders. The mock philosophical symposium is one of Oliveira’s favorite forms of narrative digression. Gathered around the breakfast table, the landlady bustling in and out, these gentlemen of leisure hold forth on Ortega y Gasset’s notion of “man and his circumstance” and discuss the economic crisis, bridge construction, climate change, antimatter, and the “seven mosquitoes of the apocalypse.” During the conversation, a distracted Isaac makes his taciturn appearance, standing off to the side to nurse his cup of coffee.

Oliveira has not spoken to his movie’s allegorical aspect—or rather, he has steered his interlocutors in another direction. The Strange Case of Angelica is based on a script the filmmaker prepared in 1952. (Had it been filmed then, it would have been his second feature, after the proto-neorealist Aniki-Bóbó [1942], made under the sign of Jean Vigo and shot mainly around the Oporto waterfront; as it happened, his second feature, Rite of Spring, completed in 1963, documented the village of Curalha’s annual passion play.) The ur-Angelica was intended as a response to World War II. According to Oliveira, Isaac was originally a refugee who arrived in Portugal during the war, and the script included a discussion regarding the persecution of the Jews and the origins of anti-Semitism.

Is The Strange Case of Angelica, then, a movie about the mystification of a Jewish materialist? If so, he is a materialist with whom the devoutly Catholic filmmaker evidently identifies. The meaning of the story, though, lies in the manifest pleasure of the telling. (At once matter-of-fact and fantastic, the plot might be a subplot in Ben Katchor’s comic strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.) Feinting this way and that, even as he prepares his endgame, Oliveira advances the narrative with the expertise of a chess master pushing his pawns.

Every camera angle and Foley effect seems precisely calibrated, though Oliveira is more relaxed in his economical mise-en-scène than was, for example, Bresson. Oliveira’s is a confidently provincial modernism. No less than Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) or Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), The Strange Case of Angelica is a variation of the Orpheus myth (Isaac, like Cocteau’s poet, derives inspiration from static-garbled radio transmissions), but Oliveira’s version of the story is playfully prosaic. After a night spent with Angelica floating over his bed, Isaac wakes to the clamor of the morning—his landlady is mourning her dead canary. Isaac believes the bird’s death is connected to Angelica’s resurrection; in fact, it presages his own fate. Inevitably, the obsessed photographer joins his beloved in death.

If Angelica is the essence of photography, Isaac is the medium’s humble servant. He even lives in a sort of camera—his rented room is a darkened box, illuminated only by a window overlooking the Douro, the subject of Oliveira’s first movie. In addition to thinking about Angelica, or perhaps as an antidote, Isaac makes photographs of the laborers who sing as they work the vineyard across the river, disdainfully indifferent to his attention. Strange Case has other documentary aspects as well. In one apparent non sequitur, Oliveira frames a house cat intently watching the landlady’s canary. Somewhere in the vastness beyond the frame, a dog barks, humorously underscoring the cat’s presumably unscripted concentration. Similarly, the movie ends with the song of the workers in the vineyard. The landlady draws the shutters on Isaac’s window. The camera vanishes, leaving only darkness and sound of fading footsteps.

The last living filmmaker born during the age of the nickelodeon, Oliveira told an interviewer that cinema today is the “same as it was for Lumière, for Méliès and Max Linder. There you have realism, the fantastic, and the comic. There’s nothing more to add to that, absolutely nothing.” The great beauty of this love song to the medium is that Oliveira’s eschewal remains absolute. It’s a strange case—pictures move and time stands still.

The Strange Case of Angelica makes its US debut at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 3 and opens in New York and Los Angeles next month.

J. Hoberman is the senior film critic for the Village Voice.