Cinema Guild // 2010 // 97 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // October 14th, 2011
How do you fall in love with an impossibility?
It's astonishing to think that Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is 102 years old. Oliveira's first short film, Douro, Faina Fluvial, was released in 1931 as a silent picture at a time when even Hollywood was still just getting used to the concept of sound in cinema. He's been alive to see and experience all the major revolutions and movements in cinema, both domestic and abroad. However, the most staggering fact is that Oliveira spent much of his career under an oppressive and censoring fascist regime in Portugal which lasted from 1933 until 1974. It was in this "late period" of his career (well into his seventies) -- when most auteurs are either dead, irrelevant, or vastly self-indulgent -- that Oliveira's output greatly increased. It's also where he made a name for himself and became a leading modernist director known for his simplistic directorial approach to heady themes. With old age comes an incredibly self-assured approach to filmmaking by the director that balances between past and present, restraint and whimsy.
His latest film, The Strange Case of Angelica, centers on young amateur photographer Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl). Late one night, Isaac is called to the house of a wealthy local family to photograph the recently deceased Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala, Lope) so the family can have one last memory of her. Isaac checks the light in the room, takes out his camera, primes it for its mechanism of action, and quietly maneuvers around the corpse in order to get that perfect vantage on a fleeting moment. And yet something spectacularly unexpected happens. Through his lens, Isaac sees Angelica open her eyes and give him a playful smile, yet no one else seems to notice. Thinking this to be some sort of hallucination, Isaac buries himself in his work, as he tentatively develops the pictures. What he sees continues to consume his heart and mind, as the lines between reality and imagination start to blur. Soon, Angelica's spirit will plunge Isaac into a fantastical chase to understand the meaning of love and life.
You expect The Strange Case of Angelica to be this kind of languid and turgid affair because that's what you come to expect from aged genius. But this film is surprisingly light and playful. The films plays as a whimsical little anachronistic fable where Oliveira toys with the concept of reality, especially when it's juxtaposed against some sort of ethereal notion of love and madness. Parts of the film are somber and subdued; focusing on the quieter moments in the characters' lives and a mundane attachment to ritual. But as the fantastical ghost story elements of the narrative come into play, Oliveira turns it into a light comedic affair with a slightly formalist bend behind the camera. It's an astounding blending of tones and styles that you'd swear had come from a younger man. I want to know this man's morning ritual, because I can't even see myself living past 80, let alone still being this manic and playful.
The Strange Case of Angelica has a style similar to a 1930s black and white picture. It's very set oriented with a minimalist and continuous camera technique intent on portraying realism instead of style. And yet realism slowly gives way to expressionism, much in the same way as a film by Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc). It's also a film set in the 1950s, but with more than a few anachronisms. This tendency helps to infuse the film with its fairy-tale sensibilities. The director is blending the lines between past, present, and future. To further this feeling is a beautifully refined mise en scène that feels believable and lived in with how the characters move and interact within its confines. The color palette is dominated by vibrant and whimsical blues and greens to capture the playful nature of the narrative and its characters, while also reveling in darker stone hued greys and slates for the more somber aspect of this tale of death and vitality counterpoised.
Many people will not like The Strange Case of Angelica. They'll find it boring or pointless, if not bordering on indulgent, in the way the film takes its time to make a point...any point. And yet this isn't a film that should be a massive crowd pleaser. For people looking to see something unique, or to see a slightly offbeat love story instead of the more generic fodder we're all exposed to, then you might just find a little something to like here. Most importantly, Cinema Guild has released a splendid Blu-ray in order to make the film that much easier to digest and to appreciate.
The AVC/MPEG-4 1.85:1/1080p transfer is detailed though flawed. The richly varied color palette is beautifully rendered, while the visual effects employed by Oliveira are given an even great sense of clarity. There's also a great underlying grain structure to the whole affair. One negative aspect is that the black levels are too washed out or murky in some scenes, but it's not a constant. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also elegantly understated. The film's simplistic yet potently effective score is given a great level of vibrancy in the front channels but never quite gets the push it needs in the back channels. The dialogue and sound effects are also crisp and audible but mostly dominate in the front channels.
But the real effort for this disc is put into the special features. First up, we are given Oliveira's first silent film, Douro, Faina Fluvial, with an all-new 2k restoration. It's great to view this short film not only for the obvious craftsmanship and ability to better trace the director's auteur status, but also because it puts Oliveira's long career and evolution into perspective. There's also a stellar commentary by film curator and critic James Quandt who theorizes and discusses in great detail the film itself, while also contextualizing Oliveira's oeuvre as a whole.
To round out the special features, there's a 63 minute documentary called Oliveira L'Architecte by Paulo Rocha which is a very intimate look into the life and career of the director. There's also a 35 minute conversation with Oliveira which, combined with these other features, will answer any last question you may have had about the man. There's also a theatrical film and an amazing booklet essay by Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive. You really couldn't ask for a better host of special features.
Beautiful in its contradictions, The Strange Case of Angelica is a whimsical slice of fantasy grounded in reality.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Guild
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Portuguese)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Short Film