By Marc Glassman
The Strange Case of Angelica
Manoel de Oliveira, director & script
Starring: Ricardo Trepa (Isaac), Pilar Lopez de Ayala (Angelica)
First things first. Or is it last things 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 pictures of workers in fields using ancient farming instruments but even that reinforces his love of the old ways–and of death. Attempts by the housekeeper in his rooming house to please him prove laughably unsuccessful 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?