At once amusingly playful and poignantly sincere, The Strange Case of Angelica finds Manoel de Oliveira, at 101 still the world’s oldest living filmmaker, hitting upon a rewardingly weird groove after the disappointingly skimpy Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl. A fairy tale about blissful surrender to love—and, by extension, the photographic image—Oliviera’s latest is both sublimely silly and deeply earnest, a snapshot of consuming obsession and the inspiring power of art that’s like falling into a bewildering, beguiling dream. That mood is epitomized by early corresponding images of Isaac’s (Oliveira regular Ricardo Trepa) face as he drives at night to a ritzy manor, and of the deep-red taillights of his car penetrating the surrounding darkness—unreal sights of fear, passion, curiosity, mystery and transition that encapsulate the subsequent material’s concerns. Isaac is a Sephardic Jew in Portugal, commissioned during the midnight hours to travel to a palatial estate, where the Madam (Leonor Silveira) wants him to take a photo of her beloved daughter Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), whom Isaac discovers upon his arrival, and to his considerable surprise, is deceased. More crucial still, she’s a borderline-angelic newlywed who not only comes into focus through his camera’s viewfinder, but seemingly to life itself, opening her sparkling eyes to smile at him with overpowering beauty.
The dead return to life through the lens, and so too does Isaac’s spirit, with this vision of resurrection affording him a new view on the world. Introduced as a man encased in the static emanating from his archaic radio, Isaac soon hears and sees his surroundings clearly—specifically, the “old world,” which takes the form of field workers toiling on the hill directly opposite his flat’s balcony, and is also epitomized by 19th-century piano music that accompanies transitional shots of the region. Soon, Isaac’s deathbed photos of Angelica sit alongside pics of angry-looking men wielding hoes, superficially incongruous portraits that nonetheless also suggest harmony in their celebration of life and humanity. The photographer’s consuming fixation on Angelica, however, affords no peace in reality, where caravans of noisy trucks outside his window, as well as behind-the-back criticisms of his “strange” behavior by his landlady and her breakfast companions, merely compound the dissonance wrought from his infatuation with a girl no longer alive. Rather, it’s only in black-and-white sleep where Isaac finds heavenly contentment, taking flight with Angelica’s glowing spirit in his arms and, along the journey, picking a white rose off a river’s surface for his love, a joyous smile on their faces.
Oliveira’s romantic reveries have more than a trace of cornball sentimentality about them. Yet The Strange Case of Angelica’s depiction of overwhelming amour—and the means by which Isaac’s love offsets his outsider Jew-artist-“madman” status relative to Angelica's clan and the judgmental landlady—is nonetheless energized by random humor. Oliveira’s static compositions have a painterly grace, their studied airlessness proving no hindrance to good-humored drollness, as in the director’s jabs at the pretentious bourgeoisie, or the numerous shots in which Isaac clutches a locked gate and plaintively screams Angelica’s name. A discussion at the landlady’s kitchen table touches upon a perplexing range of topics, from antimatter and apocalyptic mosquitoes to economic crisis and climate change, in the process speaking to Isaac’s earthly/otherworldly predicament with oblique wittiness, and consequently recasting the action as a poetic tragi-rom-com. For Oliveira, the new and ancient, living and dead, and emotions both stymied and fulfilled, all coexist in intricately knotty ways, their relationships as natural as the food-chain pecking order shared—as seen in the film’s most amusing scene—by birds, cats and dogs.