Portuguese director de Oliveira offers his assured style to 'The Strange Case of Angelica.'

De Oliveira's 'Angelica' Balming, Enlivening

Dennis Harvey January 7, 2011

Let's face it, there's a certain morbidity to awards of the "lifetime achievement" variety. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may not have spies in Southern California doctors' offices, but you know they've got their ears to the ground somehow—eager not to wait too long, lest that beloved industry veteran who's never won a regular Oscar evade getting his or her special one before their next red carpet event leads to Pearly Gates.

There probably aren't any such awards left to give Manoel de Oliveira; he's already collected them all, and still refuses to stop creating. In 1994 he received the Film Society Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing (then called the Akira Kurosawa Award, in honor of its first recipient) at the San Francisco International Film Festival—adding to a shelf already cluttered with similar totems from Cannes, Venice, Montreal and elsewhere. It is a safe bet that no one hereabouts thought the then 86-year-old director would have too many more active years in which to further fill out his already lengthy resume.

Yet here we are, in the second decade of a brand new millennium, and what's opening at the Roxie this Friday? The latest feature by Manoel de Oliveira, who by now has continued chugging along against all odds for so long it no longer seems strange that he is the oldest working filmmaker in the world. It's just another peculiar fact of life. Yes, just another 102-year-old busy making art with a full crew and the coproduction funding of France, Portugal, Spain and Brazil at his disposal.

The Strange Case of Angelica
is his 22nd film since that San Francisco visit—a late bloomer, you might say, de Oliveira only made three features in his career's first four decades, partly because he was not in sympathy to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, who inconveniently came into power a year after the director's first completed short. He occupied many long years of artistic dormancy in various capacities, doing everything from racing cars to running a vineyard. Gathering material, perhaps.

“All my films are religious,” he's said, and Angelica manages to muse upon death and the afterlife without any of the autumnal feel one might expect from an artist who must be feeling pretty dang close to those topics. Instead, it's droll, placid and alluring, an enigmatic and ambiguous expression of bemused contentment at the miraculous. Its playfulness is a little like late Bunuel—only this filmmaker, far from being the scourge of the church, was actually invited to meet Pope in Lisbon just last year. (You know you've arrived when the Pope comes to visit you.)

Strange Case is a nearly all-Portuguese affair, unlike some recent de Oliveira joints in which he's shot abroad (New York, Paris) or used foreign marquee actors (Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich). Its protagonist Isaac (the director's grandson Ricardo Trepa) is a somber young photographer summoned by chance to snap pictures of a bride who's died tragically young. He first encounters the late Angelica (Spanish star Pilar Lopez de Ayala) surrounded by mourners at her wake, a gorgeous redhead with beatific smile reclining on a chaise lounge—as if merely dozing, dreaming of a lover.

When he peers through his lens, Isaac is started to see her open her eyes to grin at him. No one else seems to notice, however. Later in his apartment, the developed prints likewise become animated under his gaze; sleeping, he's taken flying through the night air (via charmingly primitive FX) by this luminous specter. Is Isaac mad, haunted, or blessed by a love that transcends this mortal coil? Is his discomfiting infatuation Angelica's way of lingering in the realm of the living?

Leisurely but never lax, Strange Case has room for lengthy philosophical discussions—amongst the very civil fellow boarders at Isaac's boarding house—and several church visits as well as more fanciful events. Its images (Sabine Marcelin is the director of photography) are unshowy yet lovely; our hero grows ever more hapless and hysterical, yet the film's composure is unshakeable. The Chopin piano strains which seem to herald gracious melancholy at Strange Case's start become an ode to tranquil joy by its end.

At one point Isaac, looking every inch the Sephardic Jew amongst devout Catholics in his dignified black suit and hat, revisits the deceased's estate and while waiting for her mother studies a goldfish in a bowl. Its shape and size distorted by the circular glass, this swimming splash of vivid color in a monochrome setting is pure de Oliveira: Something at once surreal, sophisticated, slightly silly and serene. One expects nothing less from a director who, confounding all logic, soldiers on eight decades after making his cinematic debut at the tail end of the silent era. His latest film is a tale of amour fou that's contrarily as balming yet enlivening as a warm bath of Epsom salts.