You don’t see a lot of films coming out of Portugal these days. I doubt you ever did. Filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira is from Portugal, though. He’s directed something in the neighborhood of 50 features over the course of his long career—meaning he could be responsible for a measurable percentage of his country’s filmic output. His first was in 1942. His last was this very year. I’ve never heard of any of them, and I doubt you have either. But the guy’s some kind of legend, having written and directed The Strange Case of Angélica—hitting select theaters in America right now—at the record-breaking age of 101.
I wish I could say Angélica is the self-evident work of a grand cinematic master, but it’s for select tastes only. The film is a whisper-thin slice of Magical Realism, a romantic fantasy well-suited to Monday afternoon matinee viewers with weak hearts. Our protagonist is Isaac (de Oliveira’s grandson, Ricardo Trepa), a Sephardic Jew living somewhere along the Portuguese coast. One rainy night, he is called to the estate of a local, well-to-do family. It seems their young, recently married daughter—the titular Angélica, of course—has passed away. Isaac’s job is to record the peaceful, slumbering image of her corpse as a memento mori for the family. While snapping away at the dead beauty, Isaac finds himself strangely attracted. Not in a creepy kind of way, apparently; but in some sort of deeply, spiritually romantic way. Or something to that effect.
Back in his lonely apartment, Isaac develops the photographs of the dearly departed and is startled to see one of them come to life. Angélica’s eyes open and she smiles beatifically at him. Isaac tries to blow off this supernatural event and takes to moping around his picturesque seaside village snapping pictures of ruddy farm workers—an act that somehow raises the concern of his nosey-parker landlady. Soon, Angélica’s ghost is visiting Isaac in his dreams (or is it merely his own tortured obsession?).
While it sounds both magical and realistic, The Strange Case of Angélica plays out like a really, really slow episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The cinematography is quite beautiful—full of crisp, luminous images that seem to be lit from within. But de Oliveira directs like I imagine he drives a car. At 100-plus, he’s clearly in no hurry to get anywhere. The acting is stiff, the dialogue is stilted and the camera behaves as if it’s afraid of breaking a hip. Scenes are shot wide angle, free of editing, and linger for at least 10 seconds after the actors have exited frame. It’s either an aesthetic choice or de Oliveira fell asleep behind the camera on every take. Either way, patience is a virtue here.
After a while, de Oliveira’s soft lighting and always-in-focus lensing are wedded to some giggle-inducing special effects, and the whole affair starts to look like a deadly serious, highly melodramatic episode of “Dark Shadows.” Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, actually. Perhaps de Oliveira is simply coming from another era. The screenplay for The Strange Case of Angélica was allegedly conceived back in 1952, and the guy’s had plenty of time to mull it over. It could be, with his static camerawork and primitive special effects, de Oliveira’s trying to evoke the long-lost epoch of silent film. To be sure, there are moments of sweet, visual poetry in The Strange Case of Angélica. But much of it seems too casually assembled. In one scene, a doctor searches the floor for his lost glasses. The action is so poorly blocked that the actor quickly wraps his hands around the glasses and pretends to sweep the floor for another awkward minute or so. In another scene, some minor characters babble on about the intertwined nature of economy, cosmic rays and the “seven mosquitoes of the Apocalypse.” Perhaps it’s meant to be deep on some metaphysical level, but it sounds a hell of a lot like the ramblings of Grandpa Simpson.
There are certain cine-aesthetes who will defend this taffeta-weight gothic fable as “deceptively simple.” It is, I suppose, though I couldn’t speculate as to the more complex nature on display here. It’s basically a boiled-down version of the Otto Preminger film Laura. At least Laura had a murder mystery to keep audiences awake. The Strange Case of Angélica has got ... impeccable lighting and the world’s oldest director.