'The Strange Case of Angelica': One Man's Palliative for the Encroaching Real World

Nathaniel Drake Carlson

A photographer with existential angst comes as close to the absolute as one can, in this world.

The Strange Case of Angelica

Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Cast: Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Ricardo Trepa
Distributor: Cinema Guild
Release date: 2011-09-20

The much heralded fact that esteemed Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is still directing, now at the age of 102, is certainly marvel enough. That his films remain great, profound works, so much the product of his own vision, is that much more remarkable and precious. His most recent feature, The Strange Case of Angelica, has the distinction of being sourced in a script Oliveira originally wrote in the early '50s and which was since published by Dis Voir. Prevented from making it due to the strict censorship of the Salazar regime, he returns to it now with over 50 years additional experience to enhance the original material.

The story remains very much the same. A young Jewish immigrant named Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) is hired to take final photographs of the newly deceased daughter of a well to do Catholic family. Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala) lies out, perfectly adorned, when he arrives and, through the lens of his antique camera, appears to come to life before only his eyes.

Isaac internalizes the experience but is unable to shake it, remaining troubled by day and in dreams at night. He begins to see her as a representative of an "absolute love" unobtainable in the present world. Ultimately this situation provides a pretext for a dialogue of sorts to emerge between the normalized world and its sets of assumptions and the possibilities for vision in the mute dead woman's haunting presence (glimpsed as a spectral figure in Georges Méliès-era effects), presenting some of Oliveira's most personal, yet classical themes in microcosm.

The film has maintained an outer appearance of the original '50s setting, at least insofar as it relates to social formalities and the specifics of attitude or comportment, and then puts that in flux with recognizable indications of a contemporary setting, as well. This is nothing new for Oliveira, but it's of interest and worth noting because of the unique nature of this project. Conceived originally in the '50s, it would not have been able to be seen as a period piece then. In just such a way he compounds his initial scenario and also reaches beyond its original limits.

It's very similar to the original script in terms of overall structure with many scenes exactly as described. The ceiling detail Isaac first sees upon entering Angelica's family home is even the same as what is provided in the published script, indicating the importance of specific detail, perhaps especially when it appears most incidental. There are shifts in emphasis, however, the subtlest acknowledgment of a gestation period of many decades. At the time of the original script, Isaac's camera, for instance, would not have been an anachronism; what exists now, as indicator of a presumed nostalgic romanticism would have been less pronounced, less obviously present.

Isaac's Jewish origin is remarked upon rather than implied, as was the case in that script. This makes an issue of his solitude and isolation in the surrounding Douro river valley community, in turn reflecting a nature already isolated by virtue of its receptivity and complementary romanticism. These qualities are established by the books of poetry on his table as well as his angel references, which begin before the story proper, and the resurrection of Christ painting which denotes a prevailing disposition of poetically construed hope and realization. Isaac is immediately presented to us then as someone who is receptive to a change of vision or perception. His reading of the poem at the beginning returns later, a sign in its subject matter of his consistent desire to escape a presumed set of limitations, a particular perceived confinement or deterministic scheme. Oliveira reinforces that with multiple references to a caged bird and a fish restricted to its bowl.

Isaac's isolation adds poignancy to his seemingly self-motivated photo project, documenting and preserving traces of heritage and memory, image and effect, even making such specific representations sacrosanct by consequence. He photographs the hillside laborers, who are working in a way and with implements that make them analogous to his own antique self-conception. The importance is in preserving traditional efforts or recognizing what they implicitly contain: an alternate notion of accomplishment, dignity or nobility than the prevailing ones.

There's an effort here to identify what can be productively fixed in place as a means of access to what remains true and valuable, whether there's an inadequacy of that which can be comprehended in this manner against the reality of what can only be conceived as fluid, inherently transient (like an exhalation of cigarette smoke). The surrounding society traffics in formalized iconography and ritual, embodying ideas or ideals, mirroring the filmmakers' own art of careful and deliberate presentation. Such is the approach of civilization, an inevitable necessity to comprehend things at all, even provisionally, and an accepted subject to irony. Isaac ultimately rebels against even this stricture, finding its restraints unacceptable, though it's he who freezes people and ideas into photographs and images and it's he who finds liberation in this.

Oliveira's film is always in a presentation mode (statues point to and frame action, scenes end when lights go out, windows are closed, etc.) that goes beyond any one particular static intent. We see the laborers stop to be photographed as though taking a curtain call as they leave the stage of their labors, for example. Performative space is marked by this prevailing presentational mode but also by the songs of the people, ritualistic behavior showing other facets of ordered human performance within or against which Isaac's dramatic revelation and response may seem disruptive. When Isaac needs to change the light bulb over Angelica's body in order to better capture her image it emphasizes again the artifice of the whole scene, it's affected, theatrical nature.

It's theatrical, yes, but also profoundly ontological, an expression of pure being, being particularized by circumstance. In such a scheme, the cut to a closer shot on Isaac when Angelica "comes alive" seems critical as indicating an intrusion of the personal and emotional. What is alive here and now in these bleak surroundings for him? The stars in the poem he reads similarly jolt free for a moment from the determinism of their own presumed particularity. This is what he will seek to do throughout.

The dispassionate presentational style allows for a remove or objectified distance, the unhealthiness of his obsession/romantic aspiration is then put into high relief; it goes wildly against the prevailing norm for a society defined by its peacefully restrained, calculated and manageably ordered precision (the Engineer's perfectly schematized mathematical logic exemplifies this). It's this established order that Isaac comes to see as an unbearable confinement but there's never any sense that what he wants can be accommodated in this world. Even as a coping tool his vision is most certainly a failure as he is hardly appeased by the insight it provides. His circumstance is instead enhanced, made more undeniable rather than less.

His existential prompt may in fact require a commensurate action. Isaac’s love for Angelica and what she represents exists at the service of desire or vice versa—is the one simply the more concrete articulation of the other? There's not some slight cost to bear. It's a volatile force that disrupts as much as it pacifies or acts as palliative; in a very real sense, such comprehension is ultimately life-killing and it's “reasonable” that it must be so. There's a threat implicit even in the workmen's songs, as in the hymns at the church and the school children's songs; all provide a constant encroaching reminder of a world regulated by specific forms and modes of comprehension, specific articulations which inevitably diminish the whole Isaac longs for.

The extended discussion at the boarding house breakfast table is an addition to the earlier script, another acknowledgment of Oliveira's own means of approach, understanding and engagement solidifying into a structural, rhetorical device over the years. The character of the Engineer (Luís Miguel Cintra) introduces specific and historically contingent details such as economic crisis and rising water levels which can be seen in empirical terms to express a particularized set of circumstances; Angelica, meanwhile, acts as ethereal, imagistic reminder of passing forms, their flitting transience and ultimate inadequacy as expression. He speaks of the indivisibility of matter/anti-matter, a collusion of all into one. Isaac conceives of this energy as the essential spirit love compels toward union. What he overlooks is that the Engineer's discussion makes allowances for both views in a way his own relentless drive toward transcendence cannot.

Isaac's final ecstatic release can only come in death, a kind of positively perceived obverse to the similar ending in Oliveira's Valley of Abraham, where the capitulation to death is a defeatist one. It also recalls the last image in his Word and Utopia, which captures a finality but also all that was and is contained therein; finality or finitude as cumulative completion, moments captured in time that contain all by providing an access to all. This may be as close to the absolute as we can get.

Cinema Guild's superb DVD and Blu Ray editions of The Strange Case of Angelica highlight the film's aesthetic glories, from the rich burnished luster of Sabine Lancelin's camerawork and lighting to the crisp, precise sound design. Colors pop and edges are appropriately sharp for a piece so much about those very same sharp edges of reality. The extra features provided are an astonishing bounty of exciting and applicable supplements.

Beyond the trailer we also get feature commentary by critic James Quandt, Absoluto, a 35 minute conversation with Oliveira shot during production on The Strange Case of Angelica and the 63 minute documentary Oliveira L'architecte from 1992 in which the director actually makes reference to The Strange Case of Angelica. There's also a booklet with excellent essay on "Late Oliveira" by Haden Guest.

Last, but certainly not least, is the first home video release of Oliveira's 1931 silent film debut, Douro: Flaina Fluvial (Labor on the Douro), an exceedingly artful document as ethnographic study. In its unique focus on capturing the essence of a period and its labor it's of a piece with Isaac's own aesthetic project. It provides perhaps the perfect complement to this most recent work from a director who remains fascinated by historic and cultural continuity, what survives and what endures.

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