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Strange Case of Angelica, The
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by Jay Seaver

"There are few Manoel de Oliveira's age, let alone making movies this good."
4 stars

It is customary, when discussing master filmmakers still producing movies well past when people in most industries have retired, to comment on how they are still vital and what an inspiration it is that they still love their art so much. That seems insufficient for Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira, who was probably hearing things like that twenty-five years ago. "The Strange Case of Angelica" was made in its writer/director's 102nd year, and is not a farewell (he's traveling to Brazil for his next feature). Nor should it be - this film is a stately but enjoyable work likely informed by its creator's age but which stands well on its own.

The Angelica of the title (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) is beautiful, recently married, and even more recently passed away. Her distraught mother (Leonor Silveira) wants one last picture of her daughter, so in the middle of the night, she calls for a photographer. What she gets is Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), a Sephardic Jew who is stunned not only by the girl's beauty even in death but by how, when he looks through the camera's viewfinder, Angelica's eyes open and she smiles at him. He's soon smitten by a girl he can only have in his dreams, and his erratic and obsessive behavior soon becomes a great concern to his landlady Justina (Adelaide Teixeira).

The Strange Case of Angelica is a period picture, though it does not announce itself as such. While the camera used by its protagonist being loaded with film is likely not the only detail tying it to the 1950s visible to a knowledgeable, attentive viewer, de Oliveira seldom goes out of his way to emphasize when and where the action takes place. The result is a movie with an unusually timeless feel - there is an uncomfortable formality to Angelica's family (not to mention barely-veiled anti-semitism) that lands somewhere between slightly exaggerated and what was normal for the time that can put the viewer on edge, for instance. Though taking place in the past, not being firmly rooted there makes it somewhat easier for its central themes to resonate today; indeed, some might say that its message that focusing on things past and unattainable fantasies is seductive but ultimately self-destructive has never been more relevant.

It's a beautiful film, as well; de Oliveira and company find and create impressive spaces for his characters to inhabit, and the effects used for the spectral Angelica are simple in design (they would not feel out of place in a silent film) but executed with technical perfection. One thing that's striking is how little de Oliveira and cinematographer Sabine Lancelin move the camera; while there are occasional short, slow pans, for the most part the audience's point of view stays stationary, at just the right length to take the scene in in its entirety. An interesting side effect is that we often get the impression of people moving through an area, rather than following them. The counter to that is that the film can get very slow at points; without cuts or changes in scenery to refocus the audience's attention, it's not hard for one's attention to drift.

The cast does what it can to avoid that happening. Ricardo Trepa gives us an impressive descent into obsession; his pride and occasional hostility at the start become twitchiness and then frightening monomania as the film goes on without it ever being the result of jarring changes. Adelaide Teixeira makes Madame Justina a comforting sort of busybody - for all she's a nuisance, she's genuinely concerned. Pilar Lopez de Ayala does not have any actual lines in the movie (having never heard her voice, Isaac apparently cannot include it in his fantasies), but that doesn't stop her from being an interesting ghost - her smiling face as a corpse is both lovely and an unnerving rictus, but there's a certain innocence to her as a spirit. She's not a siren calling to Isaac, but his own creation. Even the small parts are well-done, such as Sara Carinhas as Angelica's sister and Isabel Ruth as the family's maid.

"The Strange Case of Angelica", it must be said, can be a little difficult to get through; a centenarian director works at a different pace than those less than half his age, and he doesn't mind going off on the occasional digression. But he also makes a worthy piece, gentle and sympathetic but acutely aware of the dangers of living in the past.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20649&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/13/11 13:18:45
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