Love and death and the transmigration of souls
Oliveira’s reputation may be more widespread than knowledge of his eclectic output. Now 102, he began sporadically after being an athlete, film actor and farmer, and has only been making features almost every year more recently. Last year he completed Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl, and this year he again tells the tale, The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) this time more magical, of a young man who falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful young woman. Again Oliveira straddles epochs.Blond Haired Girl was a 19th-century short story transposed to the 20th century. Angelica is an original idea of Oliveira’s from the Fifties transposed — partially — to now. The interiors, which this time are more austere, have nothing modern about them, and the young Sephardic Jewish photographer, Isaac, uses a Fifties Leica camera. Ricardo Trêpa, who takes the role of Isaac, also played Macário, the disillusioned protagonist of Blond, only now he is pale and beardless.
Macário and his girl loved each other, only he was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to marry her, finally discovering that she was not worth marrying in the first place. Isaac falls in love with a dead girl, and his love-longing follows the classic pattern of the Arabic and medieval platonic mythology of insane sublimated passion. His behavior becomes increasingly disturbed and strange, and he finally collapses under a grove of olive trees. (If this links him with Oliveira, as the director admits, he also denies any Jewish family ties.) Ultimtely Isaac winds up flying through the sky linked with his beloved, Angélica (Pilar López de Ayala).
She has died shortly after being married, and her wealthy family calls upon Isaac to take the picture of her in death, more famous photographers being absent at the time. As he is taking the photographs with his Leica, he looks through the rangefinder to focus and sees Angélica’s face come to life, and she smiles, he is electrified, and he is henceforth obsessed.
Isaac lives in a rooming house by the side of the Douro river, subject of the director’s first short, Labor on the Douro River (1931), and he crosses the river to photograph men digging in a vineyard because working by traditional methods interests him. There are other threads. The rich family is somewhat dominated by a “pretentious” servant (Isabel Ruth). At key moments, including the night of Isaac’s photographing the dead Angélica, it is raining heavily. Two well-dressed old men and a mostly silent woman sit at the table at the boarding house at breakfasts, where the landlady worries about Isaac’s working too hard, and then his acting more and more strangely. But there is a visitor, a designer from Brazil, and they discuss such contemporary issues as global climate change, economic collapse, and antimatter. The landlady’s caged sparrow dies from eating egg, and this disaster causes Isaac to run out of the house. The conversation is stilted and repetitious. Isaac rarely speaks. He has strange dreams and howls at night. When he flies off with the spirit of Angélica in amorous metempsychosis, the image is reminiscent of many Chagall paintings. Music throughout is successive excerpts from Chopin, mostly a sonata, in a restrained performance by Maria João Pires. The film is pleasant to watch, but a little slow, and a little repetitious. Even at only 95 minutes it feels somewhat long. But it captures a mood, and the restrained F/X works for the soaring souls with sublime simplicity. But I should add that this F/X, as various writers have noted, is of a sort that might have seemed crude in the earliest days of film.
The lines between necrophilia and spiritual love or between insanity and sublime passion are thin in The Strange Case of Angélica,which, as many have noted, could as well or better be called The Strange Case of Isaac. The mise-en-scène is simpler and creates an air of fable or dream rather different from the worldly storytelling of Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl. This is utterly different from Oliveira’s absorbing, but somehow unsuccessful sequel to Buñuel, Belle toujours; but to speak of only a trio of films by a director who’s made some 60-odd, short and long, over an 80-year period, is to say little. Not many of us have a grip on the oeuvre of this long-lived cinéaste but for one who has you may consult an article by Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Classical Modernist,” available online from theFilm Comment of July/August 2008.
Shown in the Un Certain Regard segment at Cannes, and seen and reviewed by this writer as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2010. It opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles in November. The distributor is Cinema Guild.
Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Cast: Pilar López de Ayala, Filipe Vargas
Runtime: 97 min
Country: Portugal, Spain, France, Brazil