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Friday, December 11, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira | O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica)


the dead love
by Douglas Messerli


Manoel de Oliveira (writer and director) O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica) / 2010 

Based on his script of 1952, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica  has a kind of dated feeling to it, as if an early postwar film of ideas had gotten interleaved with a 1950s romance, making it somehow as ill-matched as are this work’s central characters, one a Sephardic Jew, Isaac (Ricardo Trépa) and the other, Angélica (Pilar López de Ayala), a devout Roman Catholic—one a very much alive young man and the other a woman who has recently died.

      On the other hand, perhaps, the handsome Isaac may not truly be that alive, and the dead woman, might not be truly dead. Isaac, a photographer, spends most of his life transforming living beings into still images, and, as he tells his well-meaning but intrusive landlady, Madam Justina (Adelaide Teixeira), he prefers to focus on people doing things in “the old ways,” snapping photos of day laborers who till an olive orchard by hand rather than using machines. Although the beautiful Angélica is reported as being dead by her wealthy family, she nonetheless, appears to open her eyes and beckon him when he attempts to photograph her, having been hired to create a picture for the family album. That eye-opening action later appears to be caught even within the photograph itself.

      When, soon after, Angélica begins to visit Isaac during the nights, taking her apparent new lover on magical flights over the city, Isaac can only wonder whether he’s losing his mind, or wonder, at the very least, whether he has been struck by antimatter that his well-educated fellow boarders speak about.

      The trouble is that we never do discover why the dead woman, wife to another grieving man, chooses to visit Isaac, or even how he has so quickly been smitten by her corpse.

       As always, director Oliveira beautifully composes every shot, and creates  such a slow pace for his film that the viewer can savor every detail as if many scenes were themselves simply snapshots. The Strange Case of Angelica is clearly a movie about images, in which nearly every shot becomes a kind of picturesque still. But the problem is that once the director has set up this simple plot device he seems to have nowhere to go with it, and even the beauty of images cannot hide the stagnancy of his story.
      The boarders quote gnomic statements from Oretega y Gasset and other thinkers; Isaac picks up one of his books a reads a few lines of poetry speaking of just such an angel as he finds in Angélica; but nothing coherent is made of these events. The only trail of logic we are given comes in the form of the words of consternation and worriment from Madam Justina as she gossips with the others about Isaac’s increasingly strange behavior. 
      And the final dénouement, in the form of the appearance of a bird flying in Isaac’s room during the night and the death of Madam Justina’s beloved caged bird the next morning, is so cryptically presented that we can only grasp at the reasons for Isaac’s immediate dash, soon after, across town to visit his ghost-lover’s crypt before he falls into a deathly faint. 
     The actions of these last scenes are staged, moreover, so theatrically and artificially that we might as well be watching a kind of moralistic pageant play rather than the fantasy we thought we had been witnessing. What might have seemed to be a story love that transcends even death seems to have become a kind of vampire tale.

      Is Isaac’s death a kind of warning for those who abandon their faith for emotional fulfillment, who give up everyday reality for pure sensate beauty? Surely the mix of photographs of the simple laborers hung beside that of his languid beauty suggest another kind of opposition within Isaac’s inner life.
     Or has the antimatter supposedly hovering in our upper atmosphere, like a kind of black hole, truly begun to swallow up, as the breakfasting pontificators suggest, the living.  If the film seems to hint at being a kind of fable, it is difficult to comprehend what it is telling us. Are we to take joy in Isaac’s and Angélica’s after-life romance or, as Madam Justina does, see it as an evil omen? Oliveira clearly isn’t saying. It is simply “a strange case” in which the dead fall in love.

Los Angeles, December 10, 2010

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