"The Strange Case of Angelica": The power of a spirit's smile

In 1952, Manoel de Oliveira sketched a fable of impossible longing that became, finally, The Strange Case of Angelica. Though the automobile models in de Oliveira's 2010 film are modern, many plot details remain of the period of its writing: On a torrentially rainy night, the Portas estate sends a servant into town to fetch the photographer, apparently owner of the only camera in town. He is needed to take — another archaic detail — a death portrait of the family's daughter, Angelica.

The professional photographer being away, a young dilettante named Isaac (Ricardo Trepa, the director's grandson) arrives instead; new to the area, his alluded-to Judaism is deemed slightly exotic. Entering the Portas manor, where a frieze of somber mourners lines the walls, Isaac finds his model (Pilar López de Ayala) spread on a fainting couch, nestling a bouquet of lilies. That she is fresh and beautiful in death is his first surprise; his second comes when, visible only through his viewfinder, she seems to open her eyes and smile.

Isaac lives a solitary existence, declaiming verse in his rented room and visiting the vineyards across the Douro River in Portugal to photograph the laborers tilling the fields. That same poetic toil once drew a young de Oliveira to the Douro's bustling docks for his first film, Douro Faina Fluvial (1931), a wheeling, adventurously shot short in the then-faddish silent city-symphony style, the work of a young man giddy on the fast and new. But Isaac is an old young man, obsessed by things that are lost. The Douro flows dark and slow at the beginning of The Strange Case of Angelica, traffic moving listlessly along the far shore under a trickling of Chopin; de Oliveira's film is a musical of a sort, its quietude occasionally lifted by work songs or chorales.

Pilar López de Ayala plays a mysterious — but dead — young woman.
Pilar López de Ayala plays a mysterious — but dead — young woman.

The paucity of Isaac's life is reflected in the film's form. There is scarce camera movement, and only deliberate motion within the frame. The corners of the town that delineate Isaac's existence are so cleanly mapped you may feel upon leaving the movie that you could walk from Isaac's room, to the vineyards, church, and to the Portas estate by memory. It's a provincial world so uneventful that Isaac's failure to eat breakfast is the great topic of conversation at his boarding house — which means that any little disparity takes on disproportionate significance, like the single goldfish that glows torchlike in the dusky Portas house, or Angelica's resurrected smile.

That smile grows large enough to blot out Isaac's life. Angelica's image on photographic prints haunts him, and one night she manifests in Isaac's room — or dreams — a phosphorescent specter who peels his own soul free of his body and takes it, in her embrace, soaring through the night sky, gliding down to pluck a white rose off the Douro, then ascending to follow its course from high above. The effects by which this is realized are shoddy by any contemporary standards, but presented with an infectious wonderment — the innocent idea of flight as miracle that belongs to the era of Kitty Hawk, Little Nemo, and the trick photography of the early silents. The reverie is broken by the sound of a garbage truck, a racket belonging to today.

De Oliveira, as has been elsewhere noted, is ancient at 102, with firsthand memory of a world of emperors and archdukes. Knowledge of his Methuselan lifespan, and the unique aura it imparts to his films, cannot be forgotten when watching them — though it does not sanctify leaden scenes at the boarding house breakfast table, where residents discuss "the chaotic situation the world finds itself in."

The focus of Angelica seems sometimes to drift — for example, when Isaac is browbeaten by his landlady for the umpteenth time — but then de Oliveira recalls our attention to a perfectly timed skit inlaid in the foreground, the housecat licking his chops and staring at the caged canary, only to have its attention broken by a dog's bark outside. What does each figure represent? The niggling question is recalled later when that canary claps its wings over Isaac's bed, heralding de Oliveira's vision of a life ending, surprising in its casual grace.

 
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