Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Manoel de Oliveira’s Strange Case of Angelica

A true marvel of world cinema, Portuguese centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s latest film is a paranormal romance, still the hot genre all the young girls are crazy for. Of course, no bodices are ever ripped in de Oliveira’s elegantly meditative The Strange Case of Angélica (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

There are no vampires or angels (strictly speaking) in Strange either, but there is a serious case of love from beyond the grave. Isaac is an outsider, both culturally and temporally. A Sephardic Jewish immigrant to the Douro region of Portugal, he prefers vintage cameras to modern technology and romanticizes traditional forms of manual labor. In the dead of night, he is summoned to stately home of the local landed gentry. Their young daughter Angélica died shortly after her wedding, so the family matriarch wants a final photo to preserve her ethereal beauty. Respectfully obliging, Isaac is shocked to see Angélica suddenly open her eyes through his lens. Not only does she show signs of life, she seems almost flirtatious.

So begins a most unusual cinematic courtship. As Angélica visits Isaac in dreams, he becomes ever more preoccupied with the tragic beauty. Yet, even though de Oliveira’s spectral bride story sounds like something akin to the works of Poe and Irving, he consistently de-emphasizes the gothic elements, while holding fast to a distinctly European sensibility. Indeed, Strange is both an elegy for Angélica, the Annabel Lee dying before her time, and for the Old World that gave way to the new.

Though playing the part of a corpse might not sound demanding, one look from Pilar López de Ayala’s Angélica says a lot. As Isaac, Ricardo Trêpa is also convincingly earnest and confused. Yet, de Oliveira keeps viewers at arm’s length, refusing to allow any crass displays of emotion. Eschewing manipulative melodrama, he earns Strange’s gracefully mournful atmosphere the hard way.

At 102, de Oliveira is reportedly in pre-production on his next film. Given his longevity, he obviously knows what he is doing. Though de Oliveira sets a contemplative pace for Strange, it is always clearly headed someplace with a purpose, packing a great deal into the deceptively simple vessel. A finely crafted film, Strange is certainly recommended when it opens tomorrow (12/29) at the IFC Center.