‘The Strange Case of Angelica’
Directed by Manoel de Oliveira
If a portrait is a window into the soul, then centenarian director Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica aims to look through its celluloid covering and photographed subjects and uncover the power of the medium.
As with many de Oiveira films, the plot is simple. Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) is asked by a local family to photograph their recently deceased daughter Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala). When he looks at the peaceful corpse through his lens, she opens her eyes and smiles at him. More than distressed, Isaac becomes obsessed with Angelica. She literally haunts his dreams as a glowing, transparent ghost. At the same time he cannot help but photograph a group of farm workers near to his apartment.
De Oliveira is as close to a modern Luis Buñuel as you can come. Though less scathing than the old master, his films have a similar aesthetic sensibility, the same winking digressions, and the same level of surreality. It should come as no surprise then that he made an unofficial sequel to Belle du jour. The Portuguese de Oliveira frequently frames in wide-shot and his camera hardly moves. The result is a film that feels voyeuristic, but without the requisite amount of hiding that usually comes with voyeurism. Instead, de Oliveira invites his viewers to watch not as the creepy guy in the closet, but as a member of the table.
Angelica is different from a Buñuel film in its whimsicality, which is romantic and fleeting rather than sardonic and mocking. This is both a strength and weakness. Some of the more tender moments – Isaac obsessing, Blow-Up style, over a series of photographs strung up in his bedroom, the panning camera turning them into a veritable Kinetoscope film – enforce the theme of obsession not as a dangerous mania, but as an ends to be pursued, come logic or not. But sometimes de Oliveira’s soft-heartedness betrays him and, as when the smiling Angelica appears and disappears rapidly behind Isaac, making his too-late turns comical, any tension and yearning is replaced with simple and boring unexplained phenomena.
Still, the director isn’t afraid to hint at something meaningful in the everyday. The aforementioned photos, which alternate between worker in the field and Angelica, seem to reach for some kind of esoteric montage. The meaning – perhaps that simplicity is desirable – dances on the fringe, frequently alluding grasp. Maddening at times, the elusiveness of any concrete interpretation is intentional. It’s as ephemeral as the camera’s inability to capture life beyond the original likeness, which is ultimately what drives Isaac to the verge of madness.
– Neal Dhand