I’ve heard a lot about Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira. At an impressive 102 years of age, he is the world’s oldest active director and has over 50 productions under his directorial belt, his oldest dating all the way back to 1931. I’ve listened as respect was poured his way, but I never got around to seeing any of his movies. Having just finished his latest, The Strange Case of Angelica, I’m intrigued enough to go back through his filmography and pluck out a few that sound interesting. It may not have blown me away, but it still managed to capture my thought and imagination.
The story follows a photographer named Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), who is summoned late one night to snap some pictures of the Portas family’s recently deceased daughter, Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala). As Isaac stares at her body, he becomes instantly entranced by it. She is beautiful and her face is stuck in a smile, as if she knows everything is okay. As Isaac raises his camera and stares through the lens, Angelica seems to come to life. Though obviously shocked by what he saw, he carries on with his job and goes home, but for some reason, he can’t get her out of his mind and, even stranger, she begins to haunt his dreams.
If that sounds like a horror movie to you, you might be shocked to hear it isn’t. It might have all the makings of a good fright flick—eerie black and white portraits adorn the walls and ominous chimes of the clock as it hits the top of the hour set that tone—but it never goes that route. Despite some seemingly supernatural elements, calling it a ghost movie would be doing it a disservice. This is a slow, calculated film with a sense of calmness to it. Much like Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, the direction is understated and elegant and the camera mostly remains perfectly still. Characters casually walk in and out of frame and long takes are the order of the day. If you’re looking for something with a bit more urgency to it, you won’t find it here.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes so slow that it forces itself into a rut. There’s a fine line between slowness for the purpose of setting a mood and just being slow. The Strange Case of Angelica is both, but thankfully, the mood wins out over the occasional stretch of boredom, which is largely thanks to the downright brilliant shot composition. If there’s something hanging in the frame, for instance, such as a picture, you can bet it’s there for a reason. Nearly everything shown is symbolic of something else. One of the opening scenes in particular, where cigarette smoke dances in front of the camera almost like a passing soul, exemplifies the thought and care that went into crafting this movie, introducing its most important theme that makes its way full circle by the time the credits begin to roll.
The Strange Case of Angelica is a poetic take on life and love, full of beautiful imagery and haunting realizations. It could be argued that it sometimes takes a bit too long in getting to the point and that the general connection between certain scenes is kept a little too vague, but that’s beside the point. That vagueness is what keeps the movie open for interpretation and will allow viewers to analyze and discuss it. It’s not your typical drama/romance/ghost thriller (if there even is a typical form of that), but The Strange Case of Angelica is worth watching nonetheless.
The Strange Case of Angelica receives 4/5