Combustible Celluloid
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With: Pilar López de Ayala, Ricardo Trêpa, Leonor Silveira, Filipe Vargas, Ana Maria Magalhães, Luís Miguel Cintra, Isabel Ruth, Paulo Matos, Ricardo Aibéo
Written by: Manoel de Oliveira
Directed by: Manoel de Oliveira
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Portuguese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 97
Date: 05/13/2010

The Strange Case of Angelica (2010)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Photo Finish

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who is 102 years old as of this writing and the only living director to have begun his career in the silent era, never ceases to surprise me. His films are usually described as "talky" and "static," and lately they have evolved into shorter pieces with fewer characters and fewer camera setups. But here comes The Strange Case of Angelica, which may be the most accessible of the ten Oliveira films I've seen so far. It contains many more purely visual scenes with no dialogue, more camera setups, passionate (doomed) romance, and even some visual effects. Along with his previous film Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, it's more streamlined. He proves that, even after a century, there are still things to be learned.

Oliveira's grandson Ricardo Trêpa stars once again, this time as Isaac, a young Jewish photographer living in a world of Catholics. He is the constant topic of discussion among his landlady and the other tenants in his boarding house; he's a little strange... why doesn't he eat more? As the story begins, he is hired to come to the home of a powerful lady (Leonor Silveira) to photograph the body of the recently deceased, and devastatingly beautiful, Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala). When Isaac looks through his viewfinder, Angelica opens her eyes and smiles at him. Later, the finished photograph does the same. Isaac begins passing the time by photographing laborers at work in a field, followed by the machine that takes their place. But he begins suffering weird dreams about Angelica and becomes more and more obsessed and unhinged.

With this film, Oliveira weaves his themes into the story, rather than presenting them as chunks. At the breakfast table, some engineers discuss a theory of matter and anti-matter, which we can connect to the odd relationship between Isaac and his dead love. There's also a subplot about a bird and a cat that fits nicely into the movie's agenda. Overall, this movie seems less mannered and more confident than some of Oliveira's other films, and even Trêpa seems to have evolved into a more confident and versatile actor. It's still not a mainstream film by any stretch of the imagination, and it has a wonderful, weird tone. For example, it's set in the 1950s, but Oliveira doesn't seem particularly concerned with the cars of the era (or other instruments, such as a doctor's flashlight); it all seems calculated to fit into a sly, subtle commentary on man and machines, life and death, and the passing of time.

Viewers that have never seen anything by this old master could do much worse than starting here. The film opened at the tail end of 2010 in New York, qualifying it for several top ten lists. It makes its San Francisco debut January 7 at the Roxie Cinema.

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