A Matter of Matter
by Michael Koresky

The Strange Case of Angelica
Dir. Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, Cinema Guild

Manoel de Oliveira has unofficially reached what we could call the yarn-spinning era of his dotage. Don’t let the anecdotal nature of the now 102-year-old Portuguese auteur’s most recent films fool you, however. His rigor and precision—and canny sense of how to lull and then delightfully frustrate an audience—remain intact. A mite longer than his previous two films released in the U.S., Belle toujours and Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, yet still enchantingly nugget-like, The Strange Case of Angelica takes as its central concerns nothing less than the spiritual nature of being but still manages to be pithy and casual. He always makes big existential questions seem like simple riffs; the longer, all-encompassing work they’re part and parcel of would of course be his entire, astonishingly long oeuvre. Strange Case, with its musings on death and the transcendent nature of art, would seem like the perfect elegy for this most elder statesman of cinema—if not for the fact that every other film since his 2001 portrait of an aging actor I’m Going Home, could also be called just that.

Strange Case is a sweet tease and sometimes a more formal, approaching academic, meditation. In it, a character experiences a supernatural phenomenon and a romantic obsession at once, and it sends his life into a state something like a desperate waking dream. It’s a film about cinema, unsurprisingly, but in the sense that the art form’s scientific properties are perhaps as important as its spiritual ones, it’s a surprising one. The premise is simple: a dead woman appears to come to life again within the camera lens of a photographer. That his character is Jewish, and the resurrection seems, at least superficially, Christian in nature, only adds to the puzzle. Metaphysics can’t be explained by such arbitrary matters as religion, after all.

So what is this film? A ghost story, an investigation into strange phenomenon, a meditation on the power of cinema, or a study of male obsession? In the latter sense, it’s surely of a pair with Eccentricities, in that the main character, again played by the pale and puffily handsome Ricardo Trêpa, once more stares longingly at the seemingly unattainable object of his affection from afar. In the earlier film, his constant rebuffing leads to a final (and hilariously direct) moment of disillusionment; here things are clarly impossible from the start. When he first meets Angelica (Pliar López de Ayala), the woman who will come to (literally?) haunt him, she is already deceased. He has been summoned to her death bed in the middle of the night. She is a stranger to him; he has been recommended as the ideal local photographer (in the town of Régua) to capture the woman’s full bloom of youth, mercilessly cut short, before her funeral.

The recruiting of Isaac to perform this life-altering task is depicted in a series of masterfully distilled frames, which take on the pallor of a ghostly tall tale, albeit one with a knowing slyness about its own form. It’s an unlikely opening: a car pulls up on an urban street in the pouring rain, a man in an umbrella exits and bangs on a door, desperate for a photographer. He is ultimately led, by a passing stranger, to Isaac’s lodging instead. A Sephardic Jew who lives amidst piles of books and photographs and clouds of cigarette smoke in a state of artistic anxiety (heightened by the rattling sound of radio static on the soundtrack), Isaac is somehow persuaded to leave his room in the middle of the night—Oliveira charts his progress elliptically, from his receiving word from his landlady, to his quiet ride in the back of a car, and his arrival at the local estate of a wealthy family. Isaac’s initial reaction upon entering the mansion is one of awe, directed skyward: is it the immenseness of the place or that the ceiling of this Christian home is decorated with a six-pointed star?

He is greeted by a nun, the sister of the deceased, and she seems surprised, if not utterly put off by his Jewish name. Though it’s unclear when Strange Case takes place (like his last film, it seems to exist outside of time, even if it has a classical period air about it, and gives off a heightened sense of anachronism), Oliviera has said that this story originated as a treatment in 1952 (when he was already twenty years into his career, for posterity’s sake), and Isaac’s rootlessness and immense sadness certainly seem plausibly post World War II. The subtle, largely unspoken reactions to his Jewishness—whether the sister’s seeming repulsion or his landlady’s benevolent concern—serve as constant reminders of persecution (even if Trêpa’s undeniable gentile look and bearing lend the embodiment perhaps a more comic edge than intended). What Isaac discovers inside that forbidding house could lead to his ultimate release, spiritually and artistically.

In a gorgeously obscured shot, we first only see Angelica, supine in a daybed, from behind, the back of her head and the tips of her legs visible. Mourners surround her body, so Isaac must navigate elegantly to snap his photos. Then, looking through the viewfinder, Angelica, her face beaming with a strange, bounteous angelic dignity, suddenly opens her eyes, which makes her otherworldly smile appear even wider. It’s a moment as startling as Hélène Chatelain’s famous sudden awakening in Marker’s otherwise immobile La Jetée, and, naturally an allegorically perfect moment of cinema’s capacity for miraculous resurrection. Isaac drops the camera from his face and Angelica remains a mere body.

The effect of witnessing this impossible image will shatter Isaac’s world—as though its beauty makes the terrestrial unbearable. A fanciful dream sequence supposes something more suitably divine—Angelica, as a vaporous ghost, visits Isaac in the night, and the two, lying on one another horizontally, as though on an invisible bed, float out into the night, encased in black and white, sailing through the vast starry night, his face turned toward the camera in a delightfully odd, frozen grin; no music on the soundtrack, just the slightest rustling of breeze. The image is so placid and crystalline, like a chilly winter’s night, that you feel as if your own breath could fog up the screen. In Oliveira’s hands, this tired conceit (the nighttime spirit flight) feels genuinely exhilarating, and with Trêpa’s possessed expression, truly otherworldly. And it’s a testament to the director’s consistency of vision that a later image of a puff of cigarette smoke wafting ethereally across a dark room illuminated only by morning light registers as similarly phantasmic.

Oliveira opens Isaac’s visions up to the cosmic and the chaotic; just as both the bustling city streets and a horizon of bucolic countryside are visible from his balcony window (the former always viewed in a vertiginous, straight-down overhead shot), Isaac’s experiences are twofold, reflective of his own obsessions and of the inexplicable phenomena that makes up the incomprehensible universe around him. As with many other recent Oliveira films—The Uncertainty Principle and A Talking Picture—eventually it all boils down to conversation; Oliveira is interested in how we disseminate and convert our experiences into idle chatter. A prolonged breakfast table conversation at Isaac’s boarding house, presided over by his compassionate, if nosy and high-strung, landlady, is thus a centerpiece of the film: Isaac’s mysterious past and infinite sadness is discussed, as is, in an unlikely yet fervent turn, the theory of antimatter, still a recent scientific breakthrough if we are to believe the film is indeed taking place in 1950. Are Isaac and Angelica— weary Jew and resigned Christian, living and dead, male and female—simply subatomic particles inextricably attracted to each other, moving ever closer to complete annihilation? Are our pursuits all in a sense self-destructive, as reflected in the witty, late-film image of a cat staring hungrily, curiously at a birdcage, only to whip his head around when we hear a dog bark offscreen?

The Strange Case of Angelica is graced with a profound sense of spirit—and the consideration of its characters’ spirit as a quite literal force of energy. There’s a pragmatism to its bounteous mysticism that makes its magic all the more palpable, and a slyness that keeps the whole thing earthy and grounded. At a climactic moment, Isaac is desperately racing down streets endlessly before collapsing from exhaustion, and two elderly women remark “Poor thing, he must be deranged.” He’s a poor thing, indeed, but not deranged, just overwhelmed by the possibility of perfection in a shameful world. Whether it’s perfection in love, art, or death he seeks is perhaps unclear. This universe, in any case, like Angelica’s improbable deathly smile, it’s all too much to take.