THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA


 
(O Estranho Caso de Angélica)

Dir.  Manoel de Oliviera. Portugal. 2010
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 "At night he stands up, the distant call of birds already deep inside him; and feels bold, because he has taken all the galaxies into his face."
Rainer Maria Rilke 


To the contemplative background of a Chopin Sonata, 102-year old Manoel de Oliviera's The Strange Case of Angelica is a quietly masterful meditation on the thin line between the present and the past and between this world and the next. Even after half a century of making movies, The Strange Case of Angelica shows that Oliviera is willing to take risks and explore issues that most directors stay far away from. Winner of numerous awards at Cannes and Venice, Oliviera's camera is often static and even by standards of art cinema, the film is slow, yet, even though it can be heavy-going at times, it is atmospheric, moody, and spiritually informed, filled with the truth of life.  


In the middle of a rainy night, Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), a Sephardic Jewish photographer, is summoned by wealthy hotel owners to take photos of their daughter, Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala), who has suddenly died. A beautiful bride dressed in her wedding gown with a hint of a smile on her face, Isaac is immediately captured by her presence and magically sees Angelica open her eyes and smile at him through the lens of his camera. He becomes obsessed with Angelica, dreaming of her angelic smile, and starts to withdraw from the outside world. He becomes, in the phrase of John Banville, “all inwardness, gazing out in ever intensifying perplexity upon a world in which nothing is exactly plausible, nothing is exactly what it is.”


The landlady of the boarding house where he is staying notices Isaac's odd behavior and sullen disposition and comments to her other guests that he has become strange. One night, as he stands in the dining room, he sees a group of workers tilling the soil and singing work songs as they would have done in the 1950s and rushes out to the vineyard to photograph them. Underlying the director's view that beauty has disappeared from modern life, when the same scene appears again later in the film, the work is being done by noisy overbearing machines and the sweet music of the worker's song has been replaced by the roar of the tiller's engine. 


As his fellow boarders and a pair of engineers take their meals, they talk about the cancellation of a bridge-building project, the difference between matter and anti-matter, and the current economic climate, yet Isaac stands aloof sipping on coffee and shows little interest. One night Angelica's spirit appears and reaches out to him through the dimensions and hovers over his sleeping body. In a vivid out-of-body experience, he takes her hand as they soar together through the clouds above farms and villages, in rapturous embrace. 


Though Isaac talks about, "that strange reality” saying, “perhaps it was just a hallucination, but it was just as real as waking life," the experience binds him ever closer to Angelica and, as if gripped by a sudden feverish insanity, loses his grip on the everyday world around him. Though at times lacking in lightness of spirit, The Strange Case of Angelica is the work of a master who challenges us to see the “absolutely unbroken continuity” between life and death, informing us with his camera that love is forever, that life is forever.


GRADE: A-


Seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival


Howard Schumann

 
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