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TIFF 2010 #4. Older and Wiser

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TIFF 2010 #4. Older and Wiser
Two TIFF films—one by a 101 year-old director and one dedicated to a 92 year-old pianist
By Marc Glassman

The Strange Case of Angelica.
Manoel de Oliveira, director & script
Starring: Ricardo Trepa (Isaac), Pilar Lopez de Ayala (Angelica)

Chico & Rita
Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal & Tono Errando, co-directors
Trueba & Ignacio Martinez de Pison, script
Bebo Valdes, music
Animated film with the voices of:
Eman Xor Ona (Chico), Limara Meneses (Rita), Mario Guerra (Ramon), Lenny Mandel (Ron)

The Strange Case of Angelica
First things first. Or is it last thing first?

Manoel de Oliveira is, by a considerable margin, the oldest working filmmaker in the world. He’s 101 years old and made his first film, a silent documentary in 1931. Though he’s still cranking out films at a rate of about one every two years, the Portuguese artist has slowed down in other ways.

Back in the ‘30s, he was a racecar driver. He doesn’t do that anymore.

His filmmaking, on the other hand, seems to be getting better with age.

In a straightforward unadorned, almost minimalist style, de Oliveira dramatizes love, anti-Semitism, melancholy, photography, obsession, the burdens of Catholicism, the class system, the beauties of old fashioned field labour and the lovely Douro River in his new film The Strange Case of Angelica.

The story unfolds like a tale from Edgar Allan Poe. Isaac, a Sephardic Jew, is summoned in the dead of night to take pictures for the wealthiest family in the Douro region. He arrives in the midst of a rainstorm to find that Angelica, the beautiful daughter of the aristocratic family has died mysteriously. The grief stricken mother wants pictures taken of her daughter before she’s buried.

While Isaac dutifully sets up his shots, he discovers—to his great shock—that Angelica is responding to the camera by opening her eyes and smiling at him. No one else sees this visitation from beyond the grave—only Isaac.

From that point, Isaac becomes morose and fascinated with the dead girl and his photos of her. She visits him in his dreams, and in a sequence worthy of the best fantasy scenes in silent cinema, she takes him flying above the gorgeous Doura, underneath starry skies.

Trying to break out of the spell, Isaac shoots workers in fields using ancient instruments but even that reinforces his love of the old ways—and of death. Attempts by the housekeeper in his rooming house prove laughably unsuccessfully in changing Isaac’s deepening love for Angelica.

De Oliveira offers the audience a satisfying ending to Isaac’s dilemma while still leaving the essential mysteries alone. We’re left to ponder: why did Angelica bewitch Isaac? And what are the properties of photography that make it such a strange and satisfying form of art?

Chico & Rita
One of the great collaborations in world music took place in the 1940s and ‘50s when Cuban pianists, horn players and, in particular, percussionists got together to work with some of American’s finest jazz virtuosos. Using rumba and other Caribbean rhythms, musicians like Chano Pozo, Tito Puente and Mario Bauza created great sounds with such be-boppers as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

The crazy bohemian lifestyle and wonderful music of the period comes spectacularly to life in Chico & Rita, an animated film produced, co-directed and co-scripted by Fernando Trueba. An Oscar winner for Belle Epoque (which brought a young Penelope Cruz to the world’s attention), Trueba produces music as well as film and clearly loves Latin Jazz. Chico & Rita is dedicated to Bebo Valdes, the 92 year-old Cuban-born pianist, composer and arranger, whose music is prominently featured in the film.

Valdes’s son Chucho is one of the key figures in the famous Buena Vista Social Club, who achieved global fame after decades of neglect in Castro’s Cuba, but Bebo’s comeback is even more spectacular. After years in exile in Sweden, he officially retired from music—only to be lured back in his late seventies by musicians and dedicated musicologists. The man who led the band at the legendary Tropicana in ‘50s Havana is now more popular than ever.

Chico & Rita is a sensual love story—the kind that happened to Valdes and his friends back in the day. Chico is a great pianist and Rita a wonderful singer. They make beautiful music together but the course of love never runs smoothly. Rita gives up on her man because of his philandering ways and heads to New York with Ron, a producer who makes her a big star.

Chico comes after her in New York but is rejected—after a fiery night of love. Eventually, they decide to try again but fate deals them a body blow. Still, as the Valdes stories prove, there’s always time for one more comeback…

Chico & Rita has a design style that’s fully in keeping with the mood and historical settings of the story. The animation could be better—but the music, ambience and style make this film a winner for this old jazz hound and, I suspect, many others.

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