Perhaps the most delectable quality of Manoel de Oliveira’s films is the paradox of a filmmaker in mastery of his materials and methods who portrays flawed humans botching their lives’ key moments. “The Strange Case of Angelica” demonstrates an especially accomplished example of the helmer’s favorite theme of impossible love expressed in precise, comic terms as a young photographer is sent reeling by an encounter with the decked-out corpse of a beautiful bride. Oliveira films typically have limited commercial prospects, though fest life should be especially vigorous for “Angelica.”
Some may argue the pic has heightened spiritual and religious elements, particularly concerning photographer Isaac (the director’s current favorite leading man, Ricardo Trepa) being a Sephardic Jew amid a climate of occasionally heavy Catholicism, to say nothing of the film’s fantastical conclusion. But, as always with Oliveira (who is prepping his next feature at age 101), there are counterpoints, including an amusingly extended conversation about the nature of science, engineering, economic collapse and climate change, as well as an effective contemplation of vineyard workers toiling without machinery.
These and other notions find their way inside a deliberately simple tale, whose strange case is just as much Isaac’s as it is Angelica’s. In a driving rainstorm, the manager of a family estate searches for a photographer to record Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), who died suddenly after her wedding. With the usual portraitist away in Porto, the task falls to Isaac — a coincidence that yields profound life changes for this melancholy man, holed up in his apartment and content to recite poetry to himself.
Isaac’s entry into the house of mourning is staged by Oliveira as a kind of passage over to another realm. He finds a home dominated by an arrogant servant (strong repeat collaborator Isabel Ruth) and filled with quietly sorrowful family members. The sight of a dead but smiling Angelica, laid out looking relaxed on a fainting sofa in her bride’s dress, is enough to slightly startle Isaac — but that’s nothing compared with when he begins snapping photos and she opens her eyes, coming to life through his viewfinder.
Changed by this moment, Isaac grows increasingly antisocial, staring out his window at vineyards on the opposite shore of the Douro river, and convinced that Angelica lives on in the printed photo itself. (A coy touch showing Angelica’s animated smile in long shots of his room and in his drying prints includes auds in Isaac’s hallucinations.)
In a daring foray for a director who has never gone in for outright dream sequences, Isaac imagines himself (in black-and-white) flying away with Angelica over the Douro, though the romance of the moment is firmly short-circuited. Isaac’s concern for his sanity apparently compels him to record reality — one reason he frequents vineyards to photograph the workers.
The understated Trepa gradually heightens Isaac’s distress until he reaches a breaking point, then climaxes with visually startling results. The brief visual f/x are secondary to cinematographer Sabine Lancelin’s magnificent images, which blend Gothic with the everyday while recalling Gordon Willis at his peak. Brief selections of 19th-century piano music gracefully bridge scenes in this increasingly strange tale, which De Oliveira began in the early 1950s. Production designers Christian Marti and Jose Pedro Penha play with the period, though action is set in the present.