The Strange Case of Angelica

August 8, 2010

Manoel de Oliveira, 2010


I’ve said it before, and at the risk of betraying my cine-snobbery I’ll say it again: like fine wine, the films of Manoel de Oliveira will most likely appeal to those with a developed cine-palate. The Portuguese master’s oeuvre boasts some of the finest films in the cinematic canon, and THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA is another satisfying gem, a film that opens up as one contemplates its tantalising, unassuming complexity and lingering aftertastes.


Since the release of the rarely seen Doomed Love in 1978, Oliveira has released an average of one film a year. That he was 70 at the time is all the more remarkable, particularly in light of the consistent excellence of his work, and the fact that in recent years he has produced some of his most exquisite films. Oliveira is in a class of his own, the Château Pétrus of cinematic fine dining.


Doomed Love encapsulated many of the themes that were to reappear in Oliveira’s work over the next three decades, and in terms of its central conflict between the aspirational and the concrete (the spirit and the flesh), it makes an apt touchstone for The Strange Case of Angelica. These themes are specifically alluded to in a scene where José Ortega y Gasset’s maxim about ‘man and his circumstances’ is quoted: the idea being that there is no ‘me’ without ‘things’; that life is a balance between necessity and freedom; that destiny is determined by choices made within the confines of one’s circumstances. However, an earlier and more pertinent reference is Oliveira’s first film, Douro, Faina Fluvial (Working on the Douro River, 1931). This short film—one of the first Portuguese films, in fact—was made in Oliveira’s hometown of Porto, in which he used Soviet montage techniques to depict work and working people along the docks of the river Douro.


Many of Oliveira’s films have been set in Portugal’s Douro region. Angelica is set in the city of Régua, presumably because it retains much of its original character, which informs Oliveira’s ideas about the uneasy relationship between tradition and modernity while giving the film a timeless air, as if the story could have taken place at any time over the last 101 years. Indeed, the film was conceived at the end of World War Two and eventually scripted in the early 50s as an indictment against racial and religious prejudice. However, the project was shelved along with Oliveira’s filmmaking aspirations until the Carnation Revolution toppled the 40-year dictatorship of the right-wing Estado Novo regime in 1974.


There are likely to be a number reasons why Oliveira took 45 years to revisit the script, but there’s little doubt that his preoccupations in 2010 are very different to what they might have been some decades ago. Originally conceived as a response to antisemitism, the film has been modified to focus on more contemporary concerns, but undercurrents of bourgeois privilege and contempt remain.


There’s a very telling scene in which Oliveira considers the ethics of making art when workers line up to have their photographs taken, powerlessly complying with the assumption that the artist has the right to appropriate their likeness – a quietly damning comment on bourgeois attitudes towards the working class. 


Unhurried, beautifully measured, Oliveira takes his time with every shot, and the light tone keeps this meditation on death as graceful and feather-light as a breeze. There’s a wonderfully naïve Murnau-like dream-sequence that reminds us that Oliveira’s films are steeped in the rich tradition of European culture. This is emphasised by the use of Chopin piano music, alluding to the resigned acceptance of the inevitable passing of all things.


The gorgeous music of Chopin is entirely appropriate in a film about a young photographer who falls madly in love with the beautiful young woman he has been commissioned to photograph – alas, she happens to be dead! This tale of ‘doomed love’ provides Oliveira with an excellent pretext with which to explore ideas pertaining to the very nature of cinema, of looking and engaging but not being able to possess the object of your fascination, and the disquieting connection that exits between cinema and death. If it wasn’t for the fact the Oliveira has already made his valedictory film (which has been stored under strict instructions not to be screened until after his death), it would be tempting to read The Strange Case of Angelica in that light, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. 


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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