O estranho caso de Angélica – The Strange Case of Angelica

Portugal, Spain, France, Brazil, 2010

Directed by Manoel de Oliveira

With Ricardo Trêpa (Isaac), Pilar López de Ayala (Angélica), Adelaide Teixeira (Justina)

The strange case of Angélica has nothing to do with her life but actually with her death. Summoned in the middle of the night by her mourning family to take pictures of her dead body before it is put on the casket amateur photographer Isaac, who shoots as a freelancer besides a day job, reckons to take the best shot. At one point, as he gets an image focused and steady, his finger ready to press the button of his old-fashioned camera, he startles: the dead body has just opened her eyes and her lips upped into an even more beautiful smile than what death seemed to have impressed on her face. It turns out he is the only one who saw the phenomenon as the mourners, all sitting on chairs set against the wall, silent and stoic, patiently wait for him to finish his job.

Angélica comes back later in the film as a ghost, of course. Yet this is not quite the ghost story the audience could expect: her interactions with Isaac are rare and never feature dialogues or for that matter a lot of emotions. These scenes rather have a kind of singular magic, her apparitions bringing to mind, in their awkward show of illusion, a definitively George Méliès look (though tricks are made now with computer-generated images). In fact the film has morphed into the case study of Isaac.

Photographing this world but grappling with another one: Ricardo Trêpa

Spending increasingly hectic and upsetting nights, the young man is getting clearly obsessed with the ghost chance has thrown on his path. For most of the film, he looks like an increasingly disoriented fellow, turning even more aloof and alone than he already used to be. This is not so much his own behaviors, who tend on the face of it as being rather mundane and never involves expected fits of hysteria or malaise, that points out to his strange evolution than the observations and reactions of the few people around him, in particular the owner of the pension hotel where he lives, Madam Justina. The middle-aged landlady does like him a lot and readily expresses her growing worries and real puzzlement; that in turn fuels the chats the three other guests of the pension have at breakfast. These words do define the strange case of Isaac more clearly than any other incidents but underline how singular it is and how it escapes any satisfying explanation.

But reason and habit actually cannot shed a light on the affair; at best it would perchance suggest to Isaac a useful insight; this is the case with this high-minded talk between the pension guests and another visitor about engineering and then physics, with considerations on the issue of matter and antimatter. The long-winded scene feels like a bizarre, pretentious diversion till the words do have an effect on Isaac. Antimatter, of course, what else?

Well something even deeper. Isaac is first shot as he tinkers with a radio; his efforts do not yield the results he wants and in a fit of rage pushes the stuff away, making a pile of books fall off the table where he works; the camera reveals these books have specific contents. When he picks up one of them and starts reading aloud, it is clear that they deal with religious and metaphysical issues. When Isaac first enters the house of Angélica he is stunned not by the atmosphere but by some decorative details. And the church and cemetery where the funeral took place become a leitmotif of his wanderings in the port town where his story unfolds. This is about a spiritual experience suddenly catching a young man, whose Jewish identity is clearly affirmed and matters to the understanding of his narrative arc, keen on questioning the meaning of the world and paying attention to symbols – tellingly, it is the accidental (or not) death of the little bird Justina has put in a cage as a pet that would send him in a frenzy and hastens what fate had in store for him.

Interestingly, Isaac does not only deal with the possible metaphysical nature of the world: the film emphasizes, through long, repetitive scenes, his personal taste as a photographer to document human work, especially the hard work and manual tasks of farm laborers, a choice that Justina finds hard to understand – the men he shoots belong for her to an old time, they are oddities in this modern world underpinned by machines. But Isaac precisely is interested by these antiquated ways; that also sets him apart and highlights that he is steeped into a vision of the world that ignores the modernity we relish. It is worth noting that camera is the tool that both reveals the otherworldly and illuminating nature of Angélica and the timeless value of the human exertion even as camera is readily associated with progress and fun.

Angélica may not be such an eerie and astonishing development, after all: a genre-defined narrative tool that misleadingly cater to the modern audience’s needs for fantasy or horror, she is actually a beautiful – it is hard to understate the striking charm and prettiness of actress Pilar López de Ayala and the way the camera of Manoel de Oliveira captures her – subverting character that opens the gates through which a young man would fully embrace whatever makes our reality deeper and more emotional, exciting and enlightening than the base goods of our superficial lives.

The film is also a stunning performance for the director who quietly, and a bit mischievously, builds a bold tale addressing his religious concerns through a visual style that refers to a whole life of work and the whole story of cinema. The feverish shooting by Isaac of the old laborers echoes the Neo-realistic intent of de Oliveira’s very first film, a short documentary on the Douro river (“Douro, Faina fluvial”, 1931); the desire of challenging our view of the modern world through an surprising and religiously informed event echoes obviously “O acto da primavera – Rite of Spring”, his landmark feature of 1963 which introduced his quest for a cinema that heightens theatrics only to create a fresh distance driving the audience to consider events and feelings with a more critical mind but still open to life’s wonders; and there is that peculiar use of long takes and cameras standing still that invites the audience to attend to whatever the characters would bring in the course of their carefully crafted dialogues.

And de Oliveira adds that wonderful idea of paying tribute to the magics of the first fictional films ever made through the most modern techniques while at the same time extolling the camera as the best mean to reach deeper layers of our reality, beyond immediacy and tangibility. “O estranho caso de Angélica – The Strange Case of Angelica” is a generous, extensive and intensive experience celebrating the imagination and skills of a great cineaste and offering a fantasy like no other but resonating in the most unexpected ways.

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