Manoel de Oliveira’s films at once display both his age and his everlasting youthfulness, mixing a considered eye not merely for film history but those of various artforms even as he displays the playfulness of a young buck. The Strange Case of Angelica beautifully demonstrates these two sides to the filmmaker. It is a work steeped in art history, a variant of the sleeping beauty myth scored to Chopin and filled with glimpses of literature of the past etched in European architecture, all of it arranged with theatrically and painterly static tableaux. Yet it is also tantalizingly mysterious, even a bit creepy, a ghost story that delves into obsession with the dead. After a time, one realizes this case of necrophilia is actually one of cinephilia, which in some ways makes its implications even more unsettling.
Returning to the Douro region of Portugal, de Oliveira’s home turf and the setting for his first film, 1931’s documentary Douro, Faina Fluvial (helpfully included on Cinema Guild’s new DVD/Blu-Ray). A shot of a compact car zooming down an old cobbled street toward a photography business and the personal loft above it shows how the times have changed, history clashing with modernism. A man gets out asking for the photographer, but he’s away in Porto. Helpfully, a stranger walks up and offers to take this man to a local Sephardi Jew named Isaac, who loves to take photographs. When Isaac is found and summoned, he accompanies the driver to a lavish country estate where a young woman named Angelica has just passed away. To preserve her memory, the family requests photos of her. It’s already an odd situation, but what sets the film in motion is the vision Isaac has as he peers through the viewfinder, hallucinating that the beautiful young woman suddenly comes back to life and smiles. After that, Isaac can think of nothing else.
That Isaac’s visions of shifting reality should be suggested through cinema is but one of many ironies that de Oliveira introduces with this brief but modestly paced setup. When the young man enters the lavish estate, he sees either a molding of a dead bird or an actual stuffed beast, presaging the grim notion this family has of preserving the dead. That connection returns later when a dream Isaac has about a ghostly bird is matched with his landlady’s own pet dying and a lodger suggesting she have the wee thing stuffed. The dead are frequently put on display in this film, including those not actually departed, merely past their time (something with which de Oliveira may well empathize). Angelica sports a half-smile in death, a slight upturning reminiscent of the Mona Lisa yet far more disturbing. It’s almost a grimace, a strained attempt to bite back amusement and disgust from beyond the grave at the ritualistic treatment of her premature death. Like everything else about the film, it’s sly and eerie.
No review of Manoel de Oliveira’s late-career work avoids bringing up his age (I didn’t even get past the first sentence before alluding to it), but it necessitates a mention for more than the general astonishment that a 102-year-old is still making films, and at the rate of about one a year. At that age, one’s own life experience is a history unto itself, and de Oliveira fills his film with anachronistic touches made personal by having lived them. By casting his own grandson as Isaac, the director ties an even more direct connection between Isaac’s view of the region shifting around him and his own perspective of the sands of time. Isaac is decidedly antiquated despite his youth, and even his middle-aged landlady chastises him for spending his time photographing manual laborers, who seem so strange in a post-industrial setting that de Oliveira has his sound mixers tweak the progression of their implements striking into soil to sound alien, such an ancient sound that one can hardly believe it ever naturally occurred in the world. But that draws the young man, who flatly responds to his nagging landlady, “Old-fashioned work interests me.”
Isaac’s apartment is almost otherworldly in its disconnect from the modern world. The cramped dimensions of the room reflect a less opulent time period, and books clutter his tables. When we first meet Isaac, he sits listening to static on the radio, and only static, as if reassuring himself of the old hiss in the age of iPods. The fact that he uses an old film camera rather than a digital one also speaks to how defiantly out of step he is with the times. His photographs hang on a clothesline over his head, capturing mundane sights like the laborers tilling the fields, dying moments of fading beauty as they drift away from this modern world.
Already aloof, Isaac withdraws totally into fantasy as he becomes consumed by Angelica, his visions of photographs undulating and altering driving him mad with the possibilities of cinema. He finds comfort, therefore, in a kind of art, and at night he dreams of a ghostly Angelica, looking like she drifted in from the silent era, sweeping him away over the countryside. And as he sinks further into art’s embrace in dreams, “reality” seems to shift appropriately: a playful pillow shot of a cat hungrily looking up at a bird flitting around a cage, its attention diverted only by the worrying bark of a dog outside, looks like a painting come to life, and Isaac himself comes to resemble art, walking around outside wearing a bowling hat and snapping photos until he resembles Magritte’s Son of Man with a camera lens in place of the apple.
The question arises, then, as to whether de Oliveira believes that Isaac’s retreat from reality is a good or bad thing, given the conflict between his romantic gestures of liberation and the somber tone of everything—the detached acting, the pallid mise-en-scène, even those moonlit reveries. De Oliveira throws in mentions of modern ills, such as climate change, the economic crisis, and modernization when those manual laborers are replaced by machinery a few days later. But even these signs of modern decay are not all bad, as a discussion between engineers on the theoretical dangers of particle colliders leads to a beautiful evocation of the effects of antimatter meeting matter, a florid description that captivates Isaac and applies to his own life. Perhaps the answer lies in the allusion to philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and his tenet of man and his circumstances. That idea posits that no one exists outside of the world, and yet Isaac seems to do just that by the film’s conclusion.
It’s a troubling finale, not for its ambiguity of message but for its clash of tone, finding equal parts liberating beauty and concrete finality that prevents any definitive reading of how to feel about the scene (and film as a whole), much less what it all means. Yet the alluring, beguiling power of Manoel de Oliveira is strikingly on display here, and for a film that works so thematically as a potential swan song, its good-natured irony and youthful play suggests an immortality that may just give the ending a positive, hopeful spin after all.